Evaluating the Social Effectiveness of Tsunami Warning Methods

Honolulu , Hawaii - Scientists from the University of Hawaii have been awarded a 0.5 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a “tsunami preparedness model” that can be used to enhance public safety in tsunami-prone regions. The group will be led by Bruce Houghton, Gordon A. MacDonald Professor of Volcanology at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The goal of the project is to produce a model that can be used as a decision-making tool by state emergency managers, who are responsible for disseminating tsunami warnings to the public.

This interdisciplinary and international research team includes physical scientists, psychologists, and social scientists from the USA, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. They will focus on identifying the most effective methods to disseminate educational information about official and natural warning signs of tsunamis to alert the public.

“People’s understanding of warning signals and the implications of those signals for behavioral response are often overrated by decision makers in emergency management. As a consequence, public preparedness for events such as tsunami is often overrated. For example, during the tsunami that hit Hawaii in 1960, researchers showed that only about 5% of those affected by the disaster in Hilo reacted appropriately to the official sirens used to alert the people, although most connected the siren to the idea that a tsunami was expected” says Houghton. “Public information about warning systems has traditionally focused on supplying accurate information, without considering the ways in which society interprets and uses this information. There are several key social psychological variables that influence preparedness and this is what we are going to address with this study.”

The study will look at seven different at-risk communities across the United States. The regions chosen for study include Kodiak, Alaska; Ocean Shores, Washington; Seaside, Oregon; San Diego, California; the Florida Keys; Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; and Kauai, Hawaii. These communities were selected based on the degree of risk of a tsunami in the region, both from local and distant sources, as well as the historical occurrence of tsunamis. Other criteria include the extent of tsunami education, with levels varying among the communities, and the presence or absence of a warning system.

“The U.S. plans to expand the tsunami detection and warning system across a greater area of the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic and Caribbean illustrate a growing recognition of the potential for tsunamis to impact across most of the U.S. coastline,” explains Houghton. ”Without an effective warning system designed around official and natural warning mechanisms and prepared coastal communities, the high death toll experienced recently in southeast Asia could occur in coastal communities in the U.S.”

This is especially true for Hawaii, which has been devastated by tsunamis twice over the last hundred years. Chris Gregg, who completed his PhD at University of Hawaii in 2005 and is now Assistant Professor of Geology at East Tennessee State University, has researched the public understanding of the Hawaii tsunami warning system across 5 Hawaiian communities, and found that on average only 12% of the 956 Hawaii adult and student respondents had an accurate understanding of the meaning of Hawaii’s siren warning system, which was installed after the devastating tsunami of 1946. “Our study suggests that the people of Hawaii may expect and depend on official alerts of tsunamis, rather than their own detection of natural signs,” says Gregg. “This is problematic because the understanding of the official system is so low and a threat of local tsunamis impacting Hawaii’s shores within a few tens of minutes means people may not receive and effectively react to official warnings prior to arrival of damaging waves. Under these circumstances, people must therefore evacuate coastal areas upon noticing natural signs of tsunami, but awareness of these signs is only at low to moderate levels. More work is needed to understand the social-psychological links between people’s knowledge and their intentions to take protective action, including evacuating.”

The project builds on an earlier $75,000 “rapid response” grant that permitted Gregg to go to Thailand following the December 26 th, 2004 tsunami. Gregg was able to talk to survivors and community leaders about current methods of notification for tsunamis, as well as educational and community development strategies. The new study is a 0.5 million grant which will cover the development of a model focused on communities in the United States . The study is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and will be conducted with scientist colleagues from Mississippi State University, East Tennessee State University, University of Tasmania, and the Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences, New Zealand.

For Interviews contact:

Bruce Houghton

Macdonald Professor of Volcanology

Dept. of Geology & Geophysics, School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology, University of Hawaii

1680 East West Road , POST 617C, Honolulu, HI 96822

Email: mailto:bhought@soest.hawaii.edu

Phone: 808-956-2561, fax: 956-5512


Chris Gregg

Assistant Professor

Department Of Physics, Astronomy, and Geology

East Tennessee State University

277 Brown Hall

Johnson City , TN 37614

Phone : (423) 439-4231, fax: 439-6905

Email: gregg@etsu.edu


About the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology

The School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) was established by the Board of Regents of the University of Hawaii in 1988. SOEST brings together in a single focused ocean, earth sciences and technology group, some of the nation’s highest quality academic departments, research institutes, federal cooperative programs, and support facilities to meet challenges in the ocean and earth sciences, including the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP). Scientists at SOEST are supported by both state and federal funds as they endeavor to understand the subtle and complex interrelations of the seas, the atmosphere, and the earth.

Hawaii Media contact:

Tara Hicks, Outreach Specialist, School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawaii

(808) 956-3151, hickst@hawaii.edu 


 The PDF version of the press release is available here.


Full Resolution Images will open in new window 

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Thai collaborator Supin Wongbusarakum discusses tsunami issues with village leaders in Ban Sanga U, Krabi Province, Thailand. Photo credit: C.E. Gregg

Thai colleagues Supin Wongbusarakum and Somyos Tolang (middle) discuss land-use planning issues for Phi Phi Don Island with Mr. Jongrak Chamsri of Phi Phi Don. Red area shows heavy destruction in the main tourist area of Phi Phi Don. Yellow area in northeast corner of island shows area of moderate damage. Krabi, Thailand. Photo credit: C.E. Gregg
Members of the research team, Supin Wongbusarakum and  field researchers (Saengsom  Harntalee-middle and Ganha Sriyong-right),discuss changes to research strategy on the morning after the Magnitude 8.7 earthquake of March 29, 2005.  Phetra Marine Reserve, Satun Province, Thailand. Photo credit: C.E. Gregg  (*note photo says March 28, but it was actually March 29)
Mr. Isma-ann Bensa-ard of Ko Libong describes to Thai collaborator and UH graduate Supin Wongbusarakum how decades of quarrying sand from coastal dunes to sink fish traps may have amplified losses of coastal houses because structures were exposed to the full force of wave energy. Satun Province, Thailand. Photo credit: C.E. Gregg

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