Tsunamis are the byproduct of another natural or man-made disaster. The majority of tsunamis are triggered by earthquakes or volcanoes occurring underwater or near coastal areas, but they can also be generated by explosions or meteors.
When preparing for a tsunami, it’s important to prepare for the other natural disasters that have the potential to cause them. For example, if you live in San Diego or Los Angeles, you should already be expectant of an earthquake. A significant quake can lead to a coastal tsunami, so if you’re anywhere near the beach you should be preparing for both disasters.
How do you prepare for a tsunami?
In order to prepare for a tsunami, you should know your risk and have an evacuation plan with routes memorized. Get an evacuation (or bug-out) kit with all the supplies to last you at least 72 hours. Keep it in your car for easy transport but make sure it’s not too heavy in case the roads are blocked and evacuating by foot is your only option. Make a family plan which includes ways to get in touch with your loved ones after the disaster has passed and develop a reunification plan. In this article, we’ll be discussing the preparedness process in great detail so that you can feel ready if you’re ever in a high-risk area during a tsunami warning.
[This is a long article about becoming prepared for a tsunami.The links in the Table of Contents may help you to navigate through the page. If you don't have much time and want to dive right into the meat of this article, please click here. And don’t forget to grab your free checklist at the end!]
- Over history, 70% of confirmed tsunamis occurred in the Pacific Ocean and 81% were caused by earthquakes.
- The deadliest tsunami in recorded history occurred on December 26, 2004, in the Indian Ocean. The cause was an underwater 9.1 magnitude earthquake near Sumatra, Indonesia. This disaster claimed the lives of more than 230,000 people throughout 15 countries.
- The costliest tsunami (part of a combination of disasters) is attributed to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that occurred on March 11, 2011. The direct cost of the disaster, according to the Japanese government, was roughly $199 billion dollars. The economic cost, however, is estimated to reach $235 billion dollars, according to the World Bank.
- The highest tsunami is believed to be the one that occurred in Lituya Bay, Alaska on July 9, 1958. An earthquake caused rockfalls in the area, one of which fell about 3,000 feet into the Bay and resulted in a tsunami that destroyed everything along its path located at or below 1,720 feet. The bay itself is at sea level, so imagine the size and strength of the waves to level the slopes.
- The worst tsunami to ever hit the US Pacific Coast occurred on Good Friday (ironic?) which was March 27, 1964. It happened after a massive earthquake struck Anchorage, Alaska.
- The tsunami capital of the United States is Crescent City, CA, a city just south of the Oregon border.
Tsunami terms you should know
Tsunami: The word tsunami literally means “harbor wave.” A tsunami is a series of massive waves that happen after a significant displacement in the Earth. Volcanoes and earthquakes are the largest culprits— typically the ones that occur underwater and in coastal areas. They can also be caused by meteors crashing into the ocean, as well as massive landslides, rockslides, icebergs, and even underwater nuclear explosions. The average height of a tsunami wave is 33 feet (10 meters) but there are records of tsunamis having produced 100 foot (30 meters) waves, so anything is possible.
Tidal wave: A tidal wave is a huge wave that is caused by the gravitational interactions between the moon, sun, and earth. The terms ‘tsunami’ and ‘tidal wave’ are oftentimes used interchangeably but they shouldn’t be. One is caused by gravitational forces, while the other is caused by an underwater or coastal displacement of the Earth.
Tsunami watch: A tsunami watch is issued by the National Tsunami Warning Center (NTWC) or the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC). These organizations are run by the National Weather Service and each of them is responsible for monitoring earthquakes and volcanic activity below the sea in their respective regions. A tsunami watch means that there is the probability of a tsunami reaching land, but no guarantee. If you live in a coastal area and receive a tsunami watch alert, you should gather your family and review your evacuation plans and stay tuned to the radio for updates.
Tsunami advisory: A tsunami advisory is issued when a tsunami is inevitable or approaching a specific region. If you receive a tsunami advisory alert, you should begin executing your evacuation plans. Tsunami waves can cause tidal surges with enough strength to sweep away cars, boats, and anything along their path. They cause mass flooding near coastal regions and travel quickly. Do not attempt to watch the tsunami from home. Leave coastal beaches. Move inland and wait there until the threat has passed.
Tsunami warning: A tsunami warning is an escalated version of an advisory. This means that a tsunami is definitely expected in a specific area. Evacuations must occur immediately. Stay away from the beach and low-lying areas. A warning may last for hours after the initial tsunami waves have made landfall, so don’t return home until authorities say it’s safe to do so.
Current tsunami map
I couldn’t find a real-time tsunami map — I’m not sure if such a thing exists — but I did find a few cool resources instead.
The NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information has a fun interactive map where you can see previous tsunami events, significant volcanoes and earthquakes, and the hazards for your region. There’s a drop-down menu where you can select a significant tsunami event from the past and you can see where it took place and which places were affected.
Another good resource is this global and regional hazard map, provided for by the International Tsunami Information Center. The map includes significant earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunami hazard locations. They also have historical maps showing a record of the effects caused by tsunamis in different parts of the world.
The Pacific Network Seismic Network has hazard maps as well. They’re a bit difficult to understand but might give you an idea of what your area can expect.
Finally, if you live in a coastal state in the US, you’re going to love the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program’s interactive map of the United States. Click on any blue state and it will give you the option to get inundation maps, evacuation routes, and in some cases apps with lots of safety information. There are a few states where evacuation maps are not available yet. If your state is one of those, contact your city’s Emergency Management Department to get more information. Another option is to Google your city and state’s name followed by “Tsunami evacuation routes.”
If you’re a resident of California, you may benefit by visiting the California Department of Conservation website where they also offer interactive tsunami inundation maps by county.
If you’re a resident of Oregon or Washington state, you’ll want to download the interactive NVS Tsunami Evacuation Zones map. It lets you know when a watch, warning, or advisory is in effect, as well as high and low-risk areas.
For Hawaii and Guam residents, the Tsunami Aware website has an interactive map of high-risk areas, as well as safe places to evacuate.
What to expect during a tsunami
How often do tsunamis occur?
Approximately two tsunamis happen each year worldwide but highly destructive tsunamis only occur about once every 15 years. Still, any tsunami — no matter the strength — poses a great danger to property and human life.
What does a tsunami look like?
In the distance, a tsunami might just look like a regular wave crashing out at sea. As it approaches land, however, this wave appears larger and forceful. If you see a tsunami wave, don’t sit around to look at it. Run to higher ground immediately!!
There are a few events leading up to a tsunami which can help you determine that your life is threatened. First and foremost, it’s the event that caused it. In most cases, an underground or coastal earthquake or volcano is what generates a tsunami. If you feel or hear of a high-magnitude earthquake, an eruption, or explosion at sea, this is your first warning sign.
A second event that may take place is that the beach water may suddenly recede. The tide naturally goes in and out but when a huge wave is approaching, expect the water to pull back significantly. Many people rush to the ocean to run in it or to catch the fish— please don’t be that person! It’s a cool phenomenon to see the ocean recede but the wave that it’s producing is far too massive to wait around for.
How long do tsunamis last?
According to the NOAA and the National Weather Service, tsunamis can last from a few hours to a few days. This really depends on the size of the tsunami and your location relative to the epicenter.
How fast can tsunamis travel?
In the ocean, tsunamis can travel very quickly (more than 500 miles per hour). They might slow down a bit by the time they get to shore — roughly down to 100 miles per hour— but that’s still too fast for a person to outrun. A tsunami that occurs on the opposite side of the world has the potential to reach you within a day. Tsunamis have the potential to travel up to 10 miles inland, so it’s necessary to obey evacuation orders as soon as you hear them and find an elevated place of shelter. Coastal and low-lying areas are at the highest risk of tsunami waves, surges, and flooding.
What are the effects of tsunamis?
Tsunamis can cause A LOT of problems to infrastructure, society, the ecosystem, and other aspects of life.
- Infrastructure becomes vulnerable to flooding and destruction. Many people will be displaced and have to rebuild their homes and businesses.
- Human life is endangered, either because of injuries / drowning from being tossed around in the waves, or because of illness during the aftermath and recovery phase of the disaster. Not to mention dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder that is common after these types of disasters.
- Environmentally, animals, plants, their ecosystems, and entire landscapes are completely disrupted and oftentimes contaminated, both in the ocean and on land.
- Economically, the affected city (or cities) become majorly impacted. Relief organizations and governments have to invest a lot of money to help during the recovery phase of the disaster.
True or False: I don’t live in a coastal area, so I don’t need to prepare for a tsunami.
Do you ever go to the beach? Even if you only take family beach vacations once a year you should be preparing for the possibility of a tsunami. Tsunamis can occur quickly and with little to no warning. I’m not saying that you should walk around with an evacuation kit everywhere you go, but take some preparedness supplies with you when you go on vacation. If you’re driving, keep your kit in your car and pay attention to the tsunami evacuation signs on the beach. Take a mental picture of where you could find safe refuge in the event that a tsunami interrupts your vacation. The chances of something like this happening are low, but then again, many people who live through a natural disaster agree that they never thought they would be the victim of one. So with that said, prepare for anything!
Mitigation of tsunamis
Tsunami mitigation is important because it can help reduce or even prevent tsunami deaths. When you know what to look out for and what to do in such a scenario, you will be able to get to safety much faster. The following tips are my suggestions on the best ways to prepare for a tsunami.
- Know your risk. If you live in a coastal area or low-lying area somewhere near the beach, you’re probably in a high-risk zone. Learn the warning systems used in your city and what they mean. The Tsunami Zone is a website that can help you narrow down information based on your city.
- Learn the signs of a tsunami. Don’t rely on warning systems because sometimes the tsunami arrives before a warning can reach the public. Know what an approaching tsunami looks like. (Remember we already described that? If you already forgot, click here— I’ll remind you.)
- Be prepared for other disasters— typically occurring before a tsunami. Tsunamis can be triggered by several natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides. Learn how to prepare for each of those if your area is at risk.
- Retrofit your home. If you live near the beach, have an inspector or contractor check your house for vulnerabilities and ways to improve the strength of the infrastructure. If you’re able to elevate the home above the projected rush of water, you might be able to save your home from flooding. This could be costly but may be worth the investment.
- Have an evacuation plan. This step is critical for your survival. If you don’t know where it’s safe to go, you’ll be running like a chicken with their head cut off. Find where the tsunami safe areas are in your community and map them out. Become familiar with getting there using side streets since main roads and highways could be congested. Do not rely on your map App to get you to safety during a tsunami. Learn three or four escape routes leaving from the places you frequent the most, such as your home, work office, your kid’s school, the gym, and the grocery store. If your children’s school is located in a high-risk area, ask the school what their emergency evacuation plan looks like.
- Make a family plan. Imagine being at the beach with your family. Your spouse is with one of your kids swimming in the ocean while you’re with your other child building sandcastles. Suddenly the ocean waters recede and you immediately recognize what’s happening. In a moment’s notice, people are running around— it’s chaos. You pick up your child and start running inland, while frequently glancing towards the ocean for signs of your husband and your other child. You run to a place of safety, and as you start to lose the adrenaline, your mind begins to panic. Where are your husband and kid? Did they get to safety? Situations like these are why we emphasize making a family emergency plan. In this plan, you should determine how you plan to get in touch with each other if you become lost during an emergency. Remember to include a reliable point-of-contact in a different state or city that everyone in the family can call to tell them they’re safe— this person can serve as the main contact to help reunite the family. Your family emergency plan should also include a reunification plan. This doesn’t only come in handy during an emergency, but anywhere you go. For instance, if you’re at Disneyland and one of your children wanders away, you need to plan ahead of time a reunification location in case someone becomes lost. Same with all types of emergencies, but especially a tsunami. If your kids are at school during the disaster, who will pick them up and bring them home? All those details need to be sorted out long before an emergency. For information on building a communication and reunification plan, check out this page. Include your children in the planning process and practice it so they know exactly what to do in case an emergency occurs.
- Build your emergency kit. If you live in a high-risk area and are at home during a tsunami warning alert, your best bet is to keep an evacuation backpack ready to go for every member of your household. This should include the minimum supplies needed to survive for 72 hours without assistance, as well as items of personal need that you or your loved ones cannot live without— such as prescription medication or diapers. Include your pets in the preparedness process as well. Build them a kit with enough water, food, and a few comfort items. Your emergency kit should include a binder with your important documents (more info on that here!) If you’re unable to carry your backpack, either because it’s too heavy or you have pre-existing injuries that prevent you from lifting heavy things, consider attaching your backpack to a dolley cart with wheels.
- Take a CPR and first aid class. By learning basic first aid and CPR you are empowering yourself to save someone else’s life— it could be your children’s life you save! Injuries are high amongst tsunami victims, and the mass destruction oftentimes makes it difficult for medical personnel to reach those in need right away. If you’re in the midst of a tsunami and you survive it, you immediately become a first responder because you’re already on the scene. Knowing how to splint an arm or how to perform CPR are invaluable skills for such a time as that.
- Get fit. I know this may sound like a silly tip — I hope it doesn’t offend anyone because that’s not my intent by any means. But hear me out. In order to survive a tsunami, you must be able to get yourself to safety—physically speaking. Outrunning a tsunami wave is impossible, but running to higher ground might not be. Whatever physical level you are at today, wake up tomorrow and do 1% better. The next day, improve another 1%, and so on. Before I started jogging, I walked at a fast pace for weeks and worked my way up. You don’t have to run a marathon but get comfortable moving quickly.
- Think about insurance. Homeowner’s and renter’s insurance does not include tsunami damage. You may be able to get tsunami insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program by FEMA. FEMA’s website has more information on this insurance program and how you can obtain it.
Tsunami safety tips
What to do before a tsunami:
- Anytime you’re at the beach, you should be on alert for a tsunami. You just never know if you’re going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s best to be prepared so you can act out of knowledge rather than react out of fear which puts your life in even more danger.
- If you’re in a coastal or low-lying area and you feel an earthquake, move to higher ground immediately. You may only have a couple of minutes to get to safety, so move quickly.
- If you’re at the beach, and the ocean waters recede dramatically within a few seconds, that’s another warning sign to get to high ground. The wave that comes after this can be detrimental.
What to do in or during a tsunami:
- RUN! Get to higher ground immediately. Find a place that is 100 feet above sea level or drive 10 or more miles inland. If your only available option is to climb a few stories of a tall concrete building, then go for it. Worst case scenario, if you can’t find a safe place, grab something sturdy and hold on for dear life— this should be your last resort option.
- The first tsunami wave is typically NOT the largest. Expect more waves to follow for at least a day. They’ll eventually diminish in magnitude but don’t return to coastal or low-lying areas until authorities say the threat is over.
What to do after a tsunami:
- Do not walk in flooded areas. Not only can floodwaters be contaminated, but they might sweep you away.
- Do not walk near downed power lines. They may be live wires. It’s better to call the electric company to come out and inspect them. If you’re able to stay and wait for them to arrive, you can warn other passerby’s to stay away too.
- If your home or property has been damaged, take photos of the damage prior to moving or removing items. These photos may benefit you for insurance purposes.
- If your home is destroyed or not safe to stay in, find a local evacuation shelter for the time being.
- Do not drink water from the tap. Due to flooding, the city water may no longer be potable. Make sure to set up a water purification system at home to filter all your water through before consumption.
Tsunami emergency kit must-haves
It’s always wise to build an emergency kit for a disaster. A tsunami can occur while you’re at home, at work, at the beach, or even on vacation. Wherever you are, you should strive to keep important items with you at all times, whether it’s having an evacuation kit at home and another one in your car or at work. If you’re planning for a tsunami, it’s likely that you’ll be preparing for another disaster as well, so combine the supplies recommended for each disaster and create a comprehensive kit.
These suggestions can help you survive the first 72 hours after a tsunami hits, and hopefully, help you begin the recovery process faster if anything was damaged or destroyed.
- NOAA radio & batteries: Having a NOAA weather radio is critical because they’re usually the first to send out tsunami alerts. You should download the NOAA Weather app so you can receive the alerts on your phone as well. Keep in mind that a tsunami can occur during the night while you’re sleeping, so make sure the notifications can be heard any time of the day.
- A survival kit: This is basically your evacuation kit. It should include the minimum items to help you during the first 72 hours without assistance. Put together one kit per person in your household. Include items of personal need, such as a change of clothes, prescription medication, feminine products, diapers, and any other items that are vital yet unique to each family member. Don’t forget to include your pets in your planning and evacuation process! These are some pet survival kit solutions.
- A car emergency kit: On top of the survival kit, I recommend having a car emergency kit. I would consider this a miniature version of your home survival/evacuation kit. You may want to include several items of personal need as well, but at least have the minimum basics in case you can’t make it home in time to grab your survival kit. Your car kit should at least include one change of clothes, water, food or snacks, and first aid supplies.
- A comprehensive first aid kit: When I think of a tsunami, I think of widespread injuries. Many people have been swept away amongst the debris. The survivors oftentimes end up with severe injuries that could be life-threatening if they’re not taken care of quickly. If you’re lucky to survive with few injuries, you can become a good samaritan and help treat other people’s wounds until medical professionals arrive. Something simple like applying a bandaid doesn’t take skills but learning about splints, tourniquets, and other procedures do require training. I highly recommend getting trained in basic first and CPR if you want to be fully prepared for a tsunami. A kit is essential but having the knowledge to use the items inside the kit is even more crucial.
- Headlamp with batteries: I recommend having a headlamp but a flashlight will do just fine. A headlamp makes life a little more simple because it frees up both of your hands to do other things. Remember to include plenty of backup batteries.
- Potable water and a purification method: Drinking water is a high priority item for your emergency kit. Since flooding is likely to occur, you can expect the city water to be contaminated. You can stockpile cases of water bottles, or do something a lot more convenient and cost-efficient: get water boxes or a water tank. These come with purification supplies as well, so it’s a win-win!
- Long-term food storage: Even if your home survives the tsunami, you should expect widespread damage across the coastal region of your city. You should expect delays in the delivery of food and other supplies to your city, as roads may be blocked and prevent relief from coming in. Keep a supply of long-term food stored in your house for such occurrences. These food kits are ideal because it gives you the peace of mind of not having to rotate your food in 20 years. Once reconstituted (with water), these meals will provide nutrition to your family. Rest assured that they’re made with high-quality non-GMO ingredients. A safe way to cook and prepare your food is with a stove and fuel kit like this one— it’s safe to use indoors because the fuel does not release toxic fumes. Win-win!
- Snacks: Include long-term and high-energy snacks like granola bars and nuts in your survival kit. Keep an eye on expiration dates and rotate as necessary. For a complete list off long-lasting snacks and food items, look here.
- Sanitation and hygiene kit: One of the priorities after a tsunami is maintaining your health and avoiding disease. Have disposable plates, cups, and utensils for eating meals and large trash bags to throw everything away in. Also, get a complete toilet kit for safe human waste disposal.
- Important documents: No matter which disaster you’re preparing for, you must keep copies of all your valuable documents. Keep these documents stored in a waterproof container in a safe location of your home alongside your survival kit. You should store a backup copy of each of your documents on a cloud-based server, such as iCloud or Google Drive, and remember to make those files password-protected. Digital copies are necessary if you’re not home to grab the printed version— it’s the next best thing. Learn which documents you should save copies of here.
If you feel like I just hit you with a massive wave of information, wash that worry away! I made a checklist that you can print and keep with your emergency supplies. This list highlights some of the points of this article so you can remember the important tips with ease.
More resources from our blog
A tsunami can be generated by a volcano and earthquake. Although typically these disasters occur underwater, on occasion an above-ground earthquake, landslide, or volcano can cause a tsunami if it’s close enough to the shore. It’s a good idea to prepare for those disasters also if you live in areas prone to any of those disasters.
Raise awareness on tsunami preparedness!
Spread the word! Share this page with someone you care about!
Share this post
Ten Years Later: Remembering the Deadliest Tsunami in Recorded History — AccuWeather
Japan Earthquake & Tsunami of 2011: Facts and Information — Live Science
California Town Still Scarred by 1964 Tsunami — NPR
Tsunami City, USA — Slate
World’s Tallest Tsunami — Geology
How are tsunami early earnings issued? — American Geosciences Institute
Global and Regional Hazard Maps — International Tsunami Information Center
Tsunami Message Definitions - NOAA/ National Weather Service