National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2005

Developing Tsunami-Resilient Communities: The National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program

Bernard, E.N. (ed.)

Reprinted from Natural Hazards, 35(1), 2005, Springer, The Netherlands, 184 pp (2005)


As the world grieves over the catastrophic loss of humanity from the 26 December 2004 tsunami, we must resolve to learn from nature’s lessons. This volume provides a framework and a set of tools to develop communities that are resilient to tsunami. This collection of papers represents a starting point on our new journey toward a safer world.

The history of tsunami hazard mitigation tracks well with the history of destructive tsunamis in the United States. Following the 1946 Alaska generated tsunami that killed 173 people in Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was established in Hawaii by a predecessor agency to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Following the 1960 Chilean tsunami that killed 1000 people in Chile, 61 in Hawaii, and 199 in Japan, the United States formed the Joint Tsunami Research Effort (JTRE) and staffed the International Tsunami Information Center (ITIC) in Hawaii. JTRE was formed to conduct research on tsunamis while ITIC, sponsored by the United Nations, was formed to coordinate tsunami warning efforts of the Pacific Countries. Many research and mitigation efforts were focused on the distant tsunami problem. Following the 1964 Alaskan tsunami that killed 117 in Alaska, 11 in California, and 4 in Oregon, the U.S. was confronted with the local tsunami problem. In response, the U.S. established the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska.

In 1992, a Ms 7.2 earthquake in California generated a tsunami that killed no one. However, the earthquake was the first subduction zone earthquake recorded on the U.S. west coast with modern instruments. The earthquake triggered concern that larger earthquakes could generate large local tsunamis along the heavily populated west coast. In response to the local tsunami threat, the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (NTHMP) was formed in 1997 and the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center was renamed the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.

In 1994, Congress asked NOAA, responsible for issuing tsunami warnings to the U.S., to assess tsunami awareness and preparedness of the west coast for local tsunamis. NOAA held three workshops, which led to the publication of technical reports with recommendations for improvements. Congress asked NOAA to lead a group of representatives from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and from emergency management agencies in the states of Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington to review these recommendations and formulate a plan of action. The group formed a State/Federal partnership, the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, which developed a 5-year implementation plan, including a budget. Congress, led by Senator Hatfield of Oregon, Senator Inouye of Hawaii, and Senator Stevens of Alaska, funded the implementation plan beginning in 1997. Because of Senator Hatfield’s retirement, Senators Inouye and Stevens have continued to champion the effort. The collection of 12 papers presented in this volume document the accomplishments of the NTHMP, which is now a permanent part of NOAA operations. The Program is viewed as a model for State/Federal Partnerships.

This volume is organized into four sections: 1) a summary paper that gives an overview of the NTHMP with reference to papers in the book for further discussions, 2) four papers on warning guidance that detail the development of a tsunami forecasting capability and upgrades in tsunami warning operations, 3) two papers on hazard assessment that describe the development of tsunami inundation maps and their use in tsunami warnings, and 4) five papers on mitigation that describe the concept of tsunami-resilient communities. Two innovations of the program are to create a tsunami forecasting capability and to introduce the concept of tsunami-resilient communities. Combined, these innovations constitute a major advance in tsunami hazard mitigation for both local and distant tsunamis.

The reader should understand that many of the accomplishments reported have their origins with scientists at the Joint Tsunami Research Effort. For example, the capability of forecasting tsunamis using deep ocean tsunami measurements complemented by numerical modeling originated from the research of Gaylord Miller, Martin Vitousek, Harold Loomis, and Robert Harvey. It took about 30 years to transform the idea of measuring tsunamis in the deep ocean to actually reporting such data in real time. The technical feat of transmitting data from an instrument on the sea floor to a tsunami warning center in real time required exceptionally creative engineering that is carefully documented in the González et al. paper. The new tsunami measuring technology has given science a new instrument—the tsunameter—that provides tsunami researchers and practitioners with the basic information to understand and predict tsunamis. In 2003, a real-time tsunameter detected a non-destructive tsunami which led to the early cancellation of a tsunami warning and averted an unnecessary evacuation in Hawaii. For this significant feat, the Department of Commerce awarded NOAA its highest award, the Gold Medal. The second technology required to predict tsunamis is numerical models of tsunami dynamics. The paper by Titov et al. describes the use of tsunameter data as input for numerical models to forecast tsunamis. The two papers document an amazing technological development to create a tsunami forecasting capability for the United States. More importantly, the tsunameter/model combination has transformed the warning function from tsunami detection to tsunami forecasting. In operational use, the tsunameter/model will eventually lead to accurate tsunami forecasts that save lives. Accurate forecasts will also lead to fewer false alarms that cost in lost productivity and in lost confidence in the warning system.

The ability to identify tsunami hazard zones provides at-risk coastal communities with the most basic tool for tsunami preparedness. Once a community has the tsunami hazard zone identified, evacuation maps can be developed enabling residents to safely and efficiently escape tsunami dangers. The seminal paper by González et al. reviews the procedure developed to produce tsunami inundation maps and provides a set of best practices for ensuring the scientific quality of the maps.

The concept of tsunami-resilient communities was created to provide direction and coordination for tsunami mitigation activities in the absence of a disaster. Early recognition that no mitigation effort would succeed without involvement and support of local communities provided the impetus to start a dialog between state and local emergency managers/ planners/responders and other local decision makers. The paper by Jonientz-Trisler et al. gives a detailed account of the activities of the five states in establishing the dialog and subsequent actions. Specific tools that have been developed include education (Dengler), community design (Eisner), and tsunami warning alerts (Crawford). The paper by Johnson et al. assesses the effectiveness of these mitigation activities. Combined, these papers document a mitigation effort that recognizes that the ultimate responsibility for sustained mitigation is with the users of the coastal environment. With proper attention to coastal land use and proper response to tsunami warnings, coastal communities can survive the next local or distant tsunami.

Eddie Bernard


Feature Publications | Outstanding Scientific Publications

Contact Sandra Bigley |