How to Spot The Warning Signs of a Tsunami

by Contributor

The tsunami that hit the Samoa Islands on Sept. 29, 2009, killed dozens and wiped out several villages. For many, it brought back memories of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 300,000 people. Most people still don't know what a tsunami is or how to spot the warning signs of one, so before you go on that ocean vacation, take some pointers.

Be conscious of earthquakes if you are in an area near the ocean. A tsunami is the displacement of massive amounts of water, often caused by an earthquake below -- or near -- the ocean. Pay attention to the news, not just in your area but worldwide. Earthquakes thousands of miles away can cause a potentially deadly tsunami at your location.

Listen. Many survivors have repeated that tsunamis make a sound, similar to a freight train, upon their approach.

Watch water levels. If there is a noticeable and rapid fall in the coastal waters and it's not time for low tide, head inland immediately. Think of how waves work: Water first pulls back, then returns with force. An excessive or unusual retreat of water in the ocean is the biggest indication of a tsunami. Many people died in the Indian Ocean tsunami because they went to observe the bare sea floor after the ocean retreated.

Stay away from the coastline. The first wave of a tsunami is not always the most dangerous, so keep away until reputable authorities give the all-clear. Do not assume that because a tsunami is small in one place it will be the same size at all locations, as the waves vary. And don't assume that you're automatically safe inland: Tsunamis can travel up rivers and streams that connect to the ocean. Stay away from all bodies of water until an all-clear is given.

Trust your gut. If the water doesn't feel or look right to you, even without feeling an earthquake, head inland. There may be as little as five minutes from the first warning sign of a tsunami to its actual hit. If you do feel an earthquake, do not wait for an official warning as authorities may have no time to issue one.

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Items you will need

  • Awareness
  • Emergency kit


  • Always keep an emergency kit containing medical supplies, any necessary medications, food, water, a battery-operated radio and even some basic tools. In the event of a tsunami or other disaster, it may save your life.
  • Research any foreign destination you plan to spend time at. Look at the weather and the area's history, not just hotels and restaurants. That will tell you whether the location is at risk for tsunamis.
  • If you're in a boat on the open sea, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advises you not to return to shore upon hearing a tsunami warning. Tsunamis cause dangerous changes in water levels at the shore, but are imperceptible in the open ocean.

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