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How SCEC Helps People "ShakeOut" for Tsunamis

2018 Tsunami Walk for the City of Long Beach’s Third District, led by Councilwoman Suzie Price. Source: https://signal-tribune.com/2019/03/29/at-tsunami-drill-officials-stress-know-your-zone/.

10 years ago this March, an unexpectedly-large M9.1 earthquake off Japan’s east coast generated an enormous tsunami. Experts all around the world were puzzled. People knew big earthquakes and tsunamis like this could happen in the region, but not that big. With damage figures as high as $360 billion for Japan, and more than 20,000 lost, the effects were unprecedented. The culprit was mostly the tsunami, not as much the earthquake. This Pacific-wide tsunami ran up and into other countries’ coastal areas; California faced $100 million in damages to its ports, harbors, beaches, and other waterways. The need to expand tsunami education activities across California was apparent, and in 2013 led tsunami program leaders for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) to pose an intriguing question for us at SCEC: “So, could there be a ShakeOut-type website for tsunamis?” 

At that point, Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills had flourished into a worldwide movement from its 2008 beginnings in Southern California, with dozens of countries participating (including Japan). We were excited to build upon ShakeOut, but relatively uncertain if we could apply the same methodology to tsunamis. While it would be a relatively easy lift to copy ShakeOut.org and its resources for the sake of tsunami preparedness and mitigation, many decisions had to be made about SCEC’s role in such an activity. How could a leader in earthquakes be playing with the “tsunamerati”, too? Can our outreach approach be a model for this other cause? What do we not yet know, that we need to know (a favorite SCEC-type question)?


What do we not yet know, that we need to know?”


We were encouraged to put those worries aside and try it out. In 2014, TsunamiZone.org was launched, serving California residents for California’s Tsunami Preparedness Week (usually each last week of March), and mirroring the social science, visual design, registration system, and other features of ShakeOut.org. We continued to apply the factors that the late Dennis Mileti and other social science colleagues, Michele Wood and Linda Borque, had determined best motivate preparedness behaviors, i.e., when people 1) receive clear and consistent messages from many sources; 2) have conversations with others about the threat; 3) see others like themselves taking action, and 4) learn hazard information along with how to reduce risk. Our web and database manager John Marquis worked to develop TsunamiZone.org into the right intonation of “ShakeOut, but for tsunamis,” and Outreach Director Mark Benthien and Communications Manager Jason Ballmann involved tsunami experts from many regions within California to develop messaging, graphics, videos, and more.



SCEC's partner in the Earthquake Country Alliance, the Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group (RCTWG) of California’s North Coast, had already laid a lot of this work out, in addition to many other participants within the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (NTHMP). The RCTWG created the “tsunami triad’ of protective actions in many languages, which has evolved along with our global "Drop, Cover, and Hold On" imagery and shared today at TsunamiZone.org/graphics. For many years, the RCTWG had evolved its messaging due to the nearby Cascadia threat off California’s north coast (and the whole Pacific Northwest). Between Cal OES, the RCTWG, and other NTHMP-participating states and territories, TsunamiZone.org was coached by the nation’s leading experts in tsunamis, and continues to be so today.


The "Tsunami Triad" in English, available for download in this language and others at TsunamiZone.org/graphics.


Yet TsunamiZone.org was off to an underwhelming start in 2014, with just about 1,000 people signed up on the site to participate in California’s Tsunami Preparedness Week. Sure, the population of California that was living, working, or attending school in tsunami hazard zones is much lower than those that can be affected by earthquakes, but what was missing? Turns out: just some word of mouth. By taking advantage of the big list of ShakeOut registrants who might also be along the coast and the SCEC-led Earthquake Country Alliance (ECA) network of partners, by 2015 there were 88,000 participants involved, and in 2019 a whopping 335,000 were registered! The ECA took on the grassroots feel they applied to ShakeOut and encouraged neighborhoods, businesses, schools, colleges, healthcare facilities, and governments all around California to participate and help spread the word.

The work for TsunamiZone.org also went to the Caribbean for the annual Caribe Wave exercise, involving all 26 countries with coordinated leadership by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Puerto Rico Seismic Network (PRSN), and the U.S. Virgin Islands Emergency Management Agency (US VITEMA). In 2015, we developed a multi-lingual registration system, additional web pages, and other resources such as social media graphics to help support and promote Caribe Wave. The success in the Caribbean has been extraordinary; more than 500,000 participants have routinely participated over the years. But our work could not have been successful without the expertise, collaboration, and energy of those in the Caribbean. You can search on the hashtag #CaribeWave in Twitter to see how much action and participation was held even this year for Caribe Wave!


Young participants in the 2021 Caribe Wave exercise. Link to tweeted image: https://twitter.com/improRIESGOS/status/1370188743651553282?s=20.

As TsunamiZone.org continues to grow, many more regions have come on board in their own way, such as Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, and Oregon. How will you help others better prepare to survive and recover from tsunamis? What do others need to know about the tsunami hazard in their area? Help spread the word. Be a part of the SCEC effect. We’re more than research, outreach, and education - we’re changing the world.

Key Links:

2021 California’s Tsunami Preparedness Week Talking Points document

TsunamiZone.org (main website for tsunami preparedness activities, aka “ShakeOut for Tsunamis"

TsunamiZone.org/california (California’s TsunamiZone page)

EM Weekly Podcast focused on tsunamis and featuring Mark Benthien (SCEC), Todd Becker (Cal OES), and Rick Wilson (CGS)

California Geological Survey Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Remembrance

Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group Virtual Exhibit (ongoing)

Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group Japan Remembrance Videos

About the Author

Jason serves as Communications Manager for the Southern California Earthquake Center, (SCEC) headquartered at the University of Southern California (USC), where he champions SCEC science to help people better prepare to survive and recover from earthquakes. Notably, Jason helps to coordinate and support Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills, TsunamiZone.org, Earthquake Country Alliance, and numerous other science, risk, and crisis communications objectives as pertaining to SCEC research through a variety of unified channels, including but not limited to: social media, email, media relations, web, and events and displays.


TsunamiZone.org is managed by the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) at the University of Southern California (USC), and is an effort funded by the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), through the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (NTHMP). SCEC's primary, major support is from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Additional funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also helps SCEC globally coordinate Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills (ShakeOut.org).


Reporters seeking interviews and other information

should email SCEC's media contacts and consult SCEC.org/media.


We study why and how earthquakes occur, evaluate their effects, 

and help societies prepare to survive and recover. 

SCEC is headquartered at the University of Southern California with a 

community of more than 1,000 scientists across 75 institutions.