Levy wants to be ready should a tsunami hit


Published: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 11:05 p.m.

BRONSON — Among the disaster scenarios that Mark Johnson and his staff have been considering is how Levy County would respond to a tsunami. This year Johnson, the county's emergency operations director, is drafting a plan for the what-if scenario of a tsunami landing at Cedar Key, Yankeetown or the entire Levy coastline.

Johnson's efforts are being encouraged by federal officials, even though they say the odds of it ever happening are miniscule.

"The thing about a tsunami is that it is a low probability, high impact event and that is why we are even talking about it," said Dan Noah, the National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist for the Guf Coast between Levy County and Fort Myers. "The chances are that we will not have one in our lifetimes, but that there will be a tsunami in the Gulf during someone's lifetime and it is up to emergency managers to prepare for all hazards."

Most tsunamis are formed by an underwater earthquake or volcanic eruption. The movement on the floor of an ocean raises up a tall, fast-moving wave like the one that formed in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004, and killed 230,000 people.

"We used to think that earthquakes were uncommon in the Gulf but maybe they are more common than we thought since we had those two last year," Noah said.

A February earthquake with a 5.2 magnitude was recorded close to Louisiana. A September quake with a 5.9 magnitude was recorded 250 miles west of Tampa and due south of Alabama. It was the strongest quake recorded in the Gulf in 33 years.

To alert Cedar Key residents about a tsunami — or anything else Mother Nature may throw at the island city — City Commissioner Pat O'Neal said huge sirens provided by Progress Energy are being installed this year. O'Neal said they sound like air-raid sirens.

"Now we are in the process of educating people about what to do when they hear the siren," O'Neal said. "It's pretty simple — if you hear one of those sirens, you know it's time to leave no matter what the emergency is."

Noah said a tsunami wave extends from the surface of an ocean to the floor. They have been known to move up to 500 mph in deep water but slow considerably — to 22 mph in 33 feet of water.

"A lot of that energy is cut off when you cut it off from beneath as is moves into shallower water," Noah said. "There is a shallow continental shelf in the Gulf, so we wouldn't see those huge waves like we would from the Atlantic."

"On the East Coast, we say people should get 10 feet up from the Atlantic (ocean) or move 300 feet inland," Noah said. "On the Gulf Coast, we want you to get out of the water. People can barely stand up in a 6 mile per hour current, so if a tsunami is traveling at 20 miles per hour and you stay in the water, you will be dragged along the shoreline and slammed into boats or whatever else is there."

To be declared tsunami ready, a community must meet several federally established standards, which are nearly identical to federal standards for community to be storm ready, such as having evacuation plans and and multiple warning systems in place.

At the end of December, federal officials had declared 37 municipalities as tsunami ready, but only one was in Florida, the Atlantic Coast community of Indian Harbour Beach.

"And we're working to have Levy County become the first on the Gulf Coast to be tsunami ready," Johnson said.

Karen Voyles can be reached at 486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun.com

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