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Date of Issue: October 14, 2009


Walls of water add to natural resource threats for Islanders all

Natural weapons of mass destruction have hit the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

A powerful earthquake spurred four tsunamis — tidal waves — that struck Samoa and American Samoa last week. The waves were upwards of 30 feet in height and wiped out homes, businesses, office buildings and pretty much everything within their reach, which was a good 2 miles from shore.

Relief workers are pouring into the areas, but are strapped because there also apparently were unrelated earthquakes off Indonesia. No tsunamis there, but massive damage.

Oh, and then there was that huge tropical typhoon, what in the Pacific Ocean is a hurricane to us, that tore through an area to the north of the islands. Typhoon Ketsana hit the Philippines, then continued to work to the west to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Still to come was super Typhoon Parma over the weekend, with winds at better than 150 mph.

The villages and towns are generally small and close to the water in that part of the world. The advance warnings were minimal. The waves took place early in the morning.

Combined death toll for all the chaos is probably going to number in the thousands, cost in the zillions.

And there wasn’t anything anyone could do to help avert the disasters.

Help alert

It is hoped that most of us here have weather radios. The National Weather Service is pretty good about letting us know when it’s going to rain, how much it’s going to storm and what’s happening with tornados, hurricanes and all the lightning strikes we tend to get.

The South Pacific weather service for earthquakes appears to be in Hawaii and Alaska. By the time the report of last week’s horror was recorded, analyzed for tsunami threat and warning issued, the poor folks — those who got the word — had maybe 15 minutes to run.

Many, many did not get the word.

It really wasn’t the weather gang’s fault. The quakes and resulting tsunamis were really close to the islands. Tsunamis travel really, really fast, like 400-mph fast, and there just wasn’t enough time to run away.

Now, for us

Florida’s additional weather worry is earthquakes, too.

On a late Sunday morning in September 2006 an earthquake categorized as 6.0 on the Richter scale trembled out in the Gulf of Mexico off Naples.

The catastrophe in the South Pacific measured on the scale at better than 8.0, by the way.

Paintings on walls shuttered. Windows shook. Walls trembled, and those who were reclining definitely felt the tremors from what was described as a fairly strong earthquake.

There was no damage, but people as far away from the epicenter felt the earth move.

Florida isn’t immune to any natural disaster, it would seem.

Fortunately there were no tsunami action then, and chances of such a wall of water erupting from an earthquake in our part of the world is generally classed as slight, according to experts.

More stories, this time a bit farther away

For this commentary, take it halfway around the world again, and here we could be again.

On April 2, 2007, the Solomon Islands got hit with a near-8.0 magnitude earthquake. That’s a huge thing to have happen, and 30 deaths have been attributed to date.

Then there was the tsunami.

The resulting tidal wave was the cause of the most destruction, inundating the nearby islands and causing most of the deaths.

Of interest to us, though, was the aftermath of all the devastation: The island of Ranongga was apparently lifted many, many feet by the force of the quake, leaving the coral reef exposed.

“The reefs are now exposed above the water and are dying,” according to a Web site. Reporters said that they saw “exposed reefs bleaching in the sun, and covered with dead fish, eels, clams and other marine life.”

The island is a favorite haunt for divers, who love to poke around in the coral and visit with the fishies. Now, Ranongga is pretty much a Pacific desert in lieu of a Pacific paradise.

I’ve been thinking about what would happen if we get the big blow that we’re overdue to receive. Hurricane experts talk a lot about overwash. We’ve all been lectured about storm surge and the height of water and waves reaching upwards of 20 or 30 feet — figure the third floor of a condo or the average height of the power pole in front of your house — and the subsequent damage to house and structure.

But imagine having the whole of Anna Maria Island reconfigured. Up. Or down. By 30 feet or so.

And one of the “dirty little secrets,” as one of our officials has phrased, is that the storm overwash isn’t just going to be beachfront.

Let’s say we’ve got a huge wall of water that has swept over our Island, and has ended up at, say, downtown Bradenton. Then it starts to ebb back to the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s not going to ooze. It’s going to flow. Fast.

And the bayfront will suddenly get a whole lot bigger as the sludge from the mainland hits the bayside of Anna Maria Island.

Backwash. Big time.

Mother Nature, when she gets angry, can be a pretty mean.

Tsunami to the west, again

An earthquake-spawned tsunami from Japan snuck up and smacked Crescent City, Calif., in November 2006, causing about $1 million in damage. There were some red faces on the tidal wave forecasters as a result of the first warning, which came pretty much on schedule, and then another big wave three hours later that was not anticipated and to which there were no warnings issued.

According to the journal Nature, a harbormaster in the city watched the surprise wave, and commented that “it looked like the tide coming in really fast. The water would go from high tide to low tide in the span of maybe 10 minutes.” The waves reached a height of about 6 feet.

The earthquake was a magnitude-8.1 trembler, which took place off the Kuril Islands near Japan. Five hours later, Crescent City got hit by the waves.

Apparently the Pacific Ocean-fronting city has something of a tsunami history. A wave killed 11 people there in 1964, the only fatalities in the continental United States from a tidal wave in recorded history.

We’ve got all this advance warning data streaming into the command centers that watch for such waves. As the journal article put it: So why was the warning called off? The decision was based on the small-predicted size of the surge, said the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center. It was a classic example of officials struggling to balance the need for warning with the dangers of a false alarm.

The whole incident is similar to those that hurricane forecasters face every time a storm starts brewing in the Atlantic. If you order an evacuation, and the storm peters out or changes course, the chances are good that the next time a storm comes that way, people will blow you off, not leave, figure you don’t know what you’re doing, and people will die.

Unlike our hurricane gurus, it seems that there isn’t much in the way of gray in tsunami warning circles. It’s coming, or it’s not, is about the way they play the game.

Sandscript factoid

Tsunamis apparently aren’t the only spawn of earthquakes. The often-killer waves can come from the air, too.

About 10 years ago a rogue wave of some sort hit Anna Maria Island. One personal watercraft rider got the ride of his life as he surfed the 6-foot swells off Passage Key.

There wasn’t any real damage except to blankets of beachgoers who were along the shore.

Cause of the mini-tidal wave was never really found, but one weather forecaster noted that the jet stream, that high, fast-moving stream of air that’s usually 30,000-feet-plus above the planet, had dipped down to the northern Gulf and had lowered its path.

Really low, like maybe hitting the water before dipping back up.

Figure a 200-mph wind hitting the water and a resulting bubble of that water would indeed form and, swoosh!, there’s a little tsunami.

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