The past day and a half has passed in a blur of activity responding to the Chile earthquake and Pacific tsunami. I was awake for 40 hours working almost nonstop at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) and only took a small break for about two hours on Saturday afternoon. The total elapsed time from our first to last tsunami bulletins was 27 hours - a record long event for us. It may have been exhausting, but it was rewarding work knowing that something I was doing was making a difference. This was, after all, the first Pacific-wide tsunami warning since 1964! Below is a photo of one of our displays in the operations center showing estimated tsunami travel time contours just before the tsunami was due to strike Japan:
My involvement began around 9:30pm Friday night when I was called into the office to fix a problem with the PTWC website. I arrived wearing a T-shirt, Hawaiian board shorts, and slippers (flip flops) thinking I'd do the fix and go home right away. Little did I know the scale of the event that was about to unfold and the media attention it would garner. Otherwise, I might have dressed more appropriately and been on camera for some of the news media coverage. Once the PTWC operations center became crowded with the media and other visitors, I felt uncomfortable in my unprofessional attire so I spent most of my time in my office answering the barrage of phone calls and emails we received.
Some calls were from concerned citizens asking what to do. Some were from officials in governments around the Pacific asking for information. Most calls were from the media, and I ended up recording at least 30 phone interviews for news outlets around the world. For example, I was on NPR, BBC (many times), Al Jazeera English (many times), Sky News (twice), BBC Breakfast, Fox and Friends, Fox News, CNN, CNN Radio, ABC, NBC, CBC, NHK, Good Morning America, KHON, and many more. I was also quoted in the "print" media such as the New York Times, LA Times, Huffington Post, Star Bulletin, Daily Telegraph, Examiner, and Pacific Daily News. There was an interesting BBC interview with me as the first siren sounded in Hawaii, so they captured my reaction to it. I was mis-quoted by CNN saying "We're going to air on the side of caution" instead of "err" that was picked up by dozens of sites.
You can listen to my NPR Weekend Edition and NPR Morning Edition interviews here:
Between phone calls, I was also tweeting and monitoring the social media outlets. I had done this previously during the Samoa and Vanuatu tsunamis last year with great success. Over 100 new people started following me on twitter yesterday during the Chile event. I really enjoyed joining the collective conversation about the tsunami and contributing information from my perspective as a tsunami warning scientist. The hitsunami website was a good example of the kind of mashup that can quickly be achieved using today's technology to serve a specific purpose like centralizing tsunami information for Hawaii and facilitating discussion. Below is an example of the "tsunami" keyword trending from yesteday's event. It peaked at over 4% of all tweets:
The tsunami warning system as we know it today was established in the 1950s and 60s during the era of teletype. It is very hierarchical whereby the tsunami warning centers send messages to local government and emergency management officials who then mobilize their respective constituencies. However, the average person today has access to so much more information compared to people from a generation ago. Anyone can get tsunami warnings via PTWC's website, RSS feeds, email or SMS subscriptions. A recent PEW survey has shown that more Americans get news from social media and the internet than any other source.
This implies that the top-down approach to tsunami warning may be less effective today than it once was, so I personally feel that the tsunami warning system needs to adapt to today's reality of instant information availability. We should embrace social media and use it in a more grassroots approach to disseminate information about threats like tsunamis. Of course, we also want to avoid diluting information or spreading of inaccurate information too, which is a risk when messages are passed around more:
Hopefully this year we'll see not only the return of the tsunami warning centers to social media but also the establishment of a new tsunami web portal to improve and centralize how tsunami information is presented online. NOAA has other portals like the new climate.gov that are starting to show how organizing content based on topic rather than based on the organizational structure is a much more effective way to reach the intended audiences. It's part of the gov2.0 strategy to make government information more open, transparent, and accessible.
I think everyone is glad yesterday's tsunami was not damaging. However, some might feel that the event was overhyped in the media and that the warning was extreme. The tsunami warning system is conservative in that the decision-making processes err on the side of caution and prefer to overwarn rather than underwarn. After all, missing a potentially dangerous event would be unacceptable. However, warnings and evacuations carry their own risks since they can incite panic, cause car accidents, and are expensive. We must walk a fine line between keeping a conservative approach so we don't miss a warning with appearing to cry wolf because that will only serve to desensitive the citizenry to the threat in the future. To quote a former mentor of mine, I think we threaded that needle between apathy and panic quite well yesterday, and the handling of the event was a resounding success.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are mine alone and don't necessarily represent those of NOAA.
UPDATE: 2 March 2010
Check out my interview with the AGU Geohazards Blog.
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