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Evaluating the social effectiveness of tsunami warning methods

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Tara Hicks Johnson, (808) 956-3151
School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology
Posted: Sep 8, 2005

HONOLULU - 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 percent 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 five Hawaiian communities, and found that on average only 12 percent 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 26th, 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.

High resolution images available for download at

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
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

School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology

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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. 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.

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