Tsunami — A Force To Reckon With

Tsunamis are one of the most deadly, powerful and nasty of all natural phenomena. When a tsunami occurs in deep waters, it can travel at speeds approaching 600 miles an hour. That’s crazy fast! In fact, that’s faster than the average cruising speed of a Boeing 747.

Thankfully, a tsunami will usually slow to about 40 miles per hour as it reaches land. That speed, however, provides no consolation for those in its path. Combine the speed, height, and weight of a tsunami, and you get a massive destructive force that will pulverize everything in its path.

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 to 9.3 rocked the Indian Ocean, causing one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time. In some places, it reached a height of 100 feet when it came on shore. The estimated death toll exceeded 300,000 people. There is an excellent movie, The Impossible  — which is based on a true story — that forever immortalizes the death and mayhem caused by this tsunami.

What Causes a Tsunami?

Occasionally, the greatest and most magnificent of sea creatures hold a meeting — they call it Congress. In this meeting, they pass laws concerning the governance of lesser sea creatures “in their care.” These laws are usually new tax increases and reductions of freedoms. Unfortunately, the resulting legislation sends pain throughout the ocean causing great moaning amongst the lesser sea creatures. This collective groaning causes powerful shockwaves that go out in the form of devastating and deadly tsunamis. 🙂

Oh, snap! Did I just drift into fiction for a moment? Sorry about that.

Think of the ocean as a bucket of water. When you carry a bucket of water if you allow too much movement of the bucket the water will slosh back and forth and eventually spill over. The same thing happens when an earthquake, seaquake (undersea earthquake), major landslide, glacier or even a large meteorite displaces a significant enough amount of water to trigger an event.

Why you Should be Concerned

Even if you don’t live in an area of general concern, you might travel to an area of danger and it is possible for tsunamis to occur in large lakes as well as inland seas. Thus, it is wise to understand the signs, warnings, dangers, and necessary preparations to survive or escape a tsunami, or the aftermath of its destruction.

Often, a tsunami will occur with little to no warning. For example, if the trigger event was a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, 100 miles off the coast of Seattle, Los Angeles or San Francisco, these coastal population centers could have less than 15 minutes to evacuate. However, if the same size earthquake were to happen off the coast of Japan, it would take nearly 9 hours for an ensuing tsunami to reach the Pacific Northwest.  That is why it is important to watch the news or listen to your NOAA radio for information about significant earthquake activity. It’s also a good idea to check with local agencies for tsunami inundation maps and evacuation plans.


Signs of a Tsunami

As was previously stated, there is often very little to no warning of a tsunami. However, one thing to look for, if at the shoreline, is a rapid movement of water away from the shore like a receding tide, but far to fast to be normal. When you see this, evacuate to higher ground immediately. You may also hear a loud roaring sound coming from the ocean or a tremor at the shoreline. Once again, evacuate immediately.

Tsunami Warnings

In the United States, there are two tsunami-warning centers. These centers issue warnings at www.tsunami.gov. Here’s a snapshot at the time of writing. As you can see, there are no warnings at the moment.


Understanding Tsunami Alert Levels


The Following is an Excerpt from the NOAA

Tsunami messages are issued by the tsunami warning centers to notify emergency managers and other local officials, the public and other partners about the potential for a tsunami following a possible tsunami-generating event. For U.S. and Canadian coastlines, these messages include alerts. There are four levels of tsunami alerts: warning, advisory, watch and information statement:

  • Tsunami Warning: Take Action—Danger! A tsunami that may cause widespread flooding is expected or occurring. Dangerous coastal flooding and powerful currents are possible and may continue for several hours or days after initial arrival.
    Follow instructions from local officials. Evacuation is recommended. Move to high ground or inland (away from the water).
  • Tsunami Advisory: Take Action—A tsunami with potential for strong currents or waves dangerous to those in or very near the water is expected or occurring. There may be flooding of beach and harbor areas. Stay out of the water and away from beaches and waterways. Follow instructions from local officials.
  • Tsunami Watch: Be Aware—A distant earthquake has occurred. A tsunami is possible.
    Stay tuned for more information. Be prepared to take action if necessary.
  • Tsunami Information Statement: RelaxAn earthquake has occurred, but there is no threat or it was very far away and the threat has not been determined. In most cases, there is no threat of a destructive tsunami.

Note: Tsunami warnings, advisories, and watches may be updated or canceled as information becomes available. Advisories, watches and information statements may be upgraded if the threat is determined to be greater than originally thought.

Tsunami warnings are broadcast through local radio and television, marine radio, wireless emergency alerts, NOAA Weather Radio and NOAA websites (like Tsunami.gov). They may also come through outdoor sirens, local officials, text message alerts, and telephone notifications.

There may not always be enough time for an official warning, so it is important that you understand natural warnings. If you are at the coast and feel a strong or long earthquake, see a sudden rise or fall of the ocean or hear a loud roar from the ocean, a tsunami may follow. This is your warning. Take action and move to a safe place. Do not wait for official instructions.

How to Survive and Prepare for a Tsunami

Never go within 6 miles of the ocean.

If that doesn’t work well for you, here are some other things you can do.

Gather Information

Research whether your home, school, work, etc. are prone to tsunami. You can do that here. Also, find out how far you are from the coast and if there are any low-lying areas that will likely fill with water. According to FEMA, the primary danger area is within a mile of the shoreline or locations less than 25 feet above sea level. This does not mean that you are safe outside of a mile, but rather that the typical tsunami reaches one mile inland.

Stay Informed – Be sure to have a NOAA radio. Keep in mind that after the event the power may be out as well as phone and Internet communications.

Sign up for any alert services your children’s school may have, and teach your children to follow instructions and move to a higher story if stuck in a building. Know what your school emergency plans are! As well as business emergency planning in prone hazard areas.

Make a note of tsunami evacuation routes posted and any evacuation sites to go to in the event of a tsunami alert.

Prepare your vehicle

Maintain your vehicle. If in a coastal area, keep extra blankets as well as a half tank of gas in your vehicle at all times.

Keep your Emergency Vehicle Kit Stocked. See our article on “How to Build the Ultimate Survival Kit: with Checklist to build your kit.

Prepare your home

Plan shelter-in-place and evacuation locations that are safe from flooding. It’s a good idea to have a location nearby as well as out-of-state if possible. If you are staying at a hotel, ask for shelter-in-place and evacuation options.

Prepare a family communication plan. This plan should include emergency meeting places where your family will go if you can’t stay in your home. It should include nearby locations as well as locations out of town and out of state. Also, include all contact information for each member of your family, such as phone numbers, email accounts, social media accounts, medical facilities, doctors, and school contacts.

Store drinking water in clean sealed containers since the water supply may become contaminated for some time. See our article on How To Prepare for any Disaster for water storage recommendations.

Store your shelter-in-place supplies where flooding will not destroy them.

Use waterproof bags and containers to protect food, medicine, clothing and electronics.

Create a bug-out-binder. A bug-out-binder is a place where you keep copies (originals if necessary) of all of your relevant documents. I recommend a sturdy, zippable binder like the C-Line expandable binder for this — of course; you can use whatever suits you best. Quick tip: In addition to a bug-out-binder, create a secondary backup binder at a separate location. Also, scan, or photograph, your documents and save them to a USB flash drive. Make backups of the flash drive too.

Quick tip: In addition to a bug-out-binder, create a secondary backup binder at a separate location. Also, scan, or photograph, your documents and save them to a USB flash drive. Make backups of the flash drive too. You can download our bug-out Binder checklist here.

Prepare to evacuate

Identify multiple evacuation routes and avoid low-lying areas, bridges, and roads.

Don’t hesitate. Plan to make the decision to evacuate with enough time to get out. Do not wait until it’s too late.

Move to higher ground and inland. If possible travel up steep slopes of hills and stay away from shallow areas around a beach or drainage systems, marshy lowlands etc.

Go up. If you are near sea level and have no nearby natural higher elevation evacuation/retreat points, some structures can be used as vertical evacuation points. Get to the highest floor as quickly as possible. Stay there until the water has receded back into the ocean. 

Remember, the first wave is often not the largest; successive waves may arrive for several hours.


Check in with your long distance contacts once you are safe.


  • Water — at least gallon per person per day. Blue Can or Datrex Foil Pouches are excellent options
  • Food — at least a 3-day supply of non-perishable, easy-to-prepare food. Such as this prepper pack from Wise foods
  • Propane stove or other means of boiling water and cooking
  • Flashlight
  • Lantern – Streamlight makes an incredible lantern that is well priced. See video here
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio. Such as this NOAA Weather Radio with built in solar charger and flashlight
  • Extra batteries
  • First aid kit – I highly recommend the Elite fully stocked GI issue medic kit bag
  • First Aid Manual – I recommend the American Red Cross Handbook
  • Medications (7-day supply) and medical items (hearing aids with extra batteries, glasses, contact lenses, syringes, cane)
  • Multi-purpose tool – I like the Leatherman Wave.
  • Sanitation and personal hygiene items such as a Covered bucket. Check out the Luggable Loo. It features a seat lid which just might save your hiney from some unnecessary pain.
  • Copies of personal documents (medication list and pertinent medical information, deed/lease to home,  birth certificates, insurance policies)
  • Cell phone with chargers
  • Family and emergency contact information
  • Extra cash
  • Emergency  blanket
  • Map(s) of the area
  • Baby supplies (bottles, formula, baby food, diapers)
  • Pet supplies (collar, leash, ID, food, carrier, bowl)
  • Tools/ supplies for securing your home
  • Extra set of car keys and house keys
  • Extra clothing, hat, and sturdy shoes
  • Raingear
  • Insect repellent and sunscreen
  • Camera for photos of damage

Wrapping up

Many of the things you need to do to prepare for a tsunami are the same as for other disasters and require only a little bit of time, and planning. You can do it! Even though tsunamis are relatively rare, if you live along the coast it is important to prepare now.

Press on my friends!

Please join in the discussion and leave a comment. Do you have some recommendations of your own? I want to hear them!

BACK TO INDEX: The Big List of Nasty Disasters and How to Prepare: Part One

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