Is Wilmington Ready for a Tsunami?

FEBRUARY 23, 2006 -- While a tsunami isn't likely to hit anytime soon along the Carolina coastline, it's a scenario that emergency management officials like Warren Lee, New Hanover County's Emergency Management Director, still consider. He says evacuating areas in the event of a tsunami would be similar to those for a hurricane evacuation but on a much shorter time frame.

"The thought process for protecting the public is pretty much the same for that. We try to evacuate as many as we can. The ones who can't get out we encourage to move upward," says Lee.

He means upward into taller and better constructed buildings. The minimum height for a tsunami evacuation above high tide is about 15 feet. Of course, that depends how high the water coming in would be.

To help determine how high the water would be, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to deploy tsunami detection buoys across the Atlantic in the next year or two. To encourage evacuation and awareness, tsunami evacuation signs, similar to current hurricane evacuation signs, will go up along area beaches in the near future as well.

"And people are going to look at these evacuation signs and say, 'What? We've never had a tsunami warning system before. We've never had a tsunami before.' Well, neither had the people of Thailand, and they didn't have a tsunami warning system in Thailand. We don't want to be in that situation here," says Tom Matheson of the National Weather Service.

To raise awareness and preparation, the National Weather Service's "Tsunami Ready" program designates communities that have met certain tsunami awareness and preparedness criteria. So far, only two east coast cities, Norfolk, Virginia and Indian Harbor Beach, Florida, have gotten that designation. Southeast North Carolina counties are working on earning that designation as well.

The "Tsunami Ready" program is similar to the "Storm Ready" program the National Weather Service already has in place for severe weather preparedness. Every county in Southeastern North Carolina and Northeast South Carolina has received the storm ready designation.

Reported by Mark Avery