Brevard County aims to be tsunami-ready

Plan includes communications center, evacuation routes

Published On: Dec 18 2012 08:25:00 AM EST
BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. -

It’s a pretty remote possibility that Brevard County’s coastline will be hit with a tsunami. But officials want to be ready — just in case.

Brevard County’s Office of Emergency Management is working with the National Weather Service to make Brevard one of the first “tsunami-ready” counties in the state, according to Local 6 News partner Florida Today.

They are establishing protocols for taking action when tsunami advisories and warnings are issued and are beginning an educational effort with municipal officials and the tourism industry.

“The public needs to understand what the threats are here,” said Scott Spratt, warning-coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Melbourne, who is helping coordinate the project. “From a public-safety standpoint, having a plan is extremely important.”

Office of Emergency Management Director Kimberly Prosser said, just as Brevard has plans in place to prepare for hurricanes and wildfires, it is important to have one for tsunamis.

“As long as you know the plan, you are better off,” Prosser said. “Once you know what the actual threat is and you prepare for it, your mind is put at ease.”

Prosser and Spratt recently briefed tourism officials about the issue during a meeting of the Brevard County Tourist Development Council, and plan several other meetings in coming months, as part of the process to make Brevard recognized as “tsunami-ready” by the National Weather Service.

The process also includes such things as designating an official tsunami communications center such as the county’s 9-1-1 dispatch center, creating systems to receive and disseminate tsunami warnings, encouraging a tsunami-hazard curriculum in schools, designating tsunami evacuation areas and evacuation routes, installing tsunami evacuation route signs and participating in at least one annual tsunami exercise.

Spratt said the most likely scenarios that would trigger a potential tsunami along the Space Coast are an earthquake in Portugal or one in Puerto Rico. He said a true tsunami is considered a once-in-100-year event along the East Coast of the United States.

The most damaging in recorded history along the East Coast occurred in 1755, triggered by an earthquake on the Portuguese coast that, based on written accounts of damage, would have registered magnitude 9 under current measurements.

But there also is the possibility of what’s known as a “meteorological tsunami.” That’s one triggered not by an seismic event like an earthquake or landslide, but rather by a storm at sea that generates what sometimes is known as a “rogue wave.” Such a wave hit the Daytona Beach area in 1992.

That wave, which hit at 11:30 p.m. on July 3, was estimated at 10 feet high and 27 miles long. Seventy-five people suffered minor injuries and 36 vehicles were damaged.

Spratt said a meteorological tsunami is considered a once-in-10-year event along the East Coast.

Brevard County and the National Weather Service are working to establish protocols for evacuating the beaches — and possibly hotels, other businesses and residences along State Road A1A — depending on the level of notification issued by a tsunami warning center in Palmer, Alaska.

A watch typically would be issued first, potentially followed by an advisory or warning. Spratt said the evacuation zone could extend as far as 300 feet inland from the high-tide point on the beach, although the county’s Office of Emergency Management will have the final say.

Spratt said disseminating the information warning to the public of a potential tsunami is crucial, since the warning period before landfall would be much less than for a hurricane, which typically is tracked days before landfall.

For an earthquake that occurs near Portugal, a tsunami wave could hit the east coast of the United States in seven to nine hours. For an earthquake near Puerto Rico, the first wave could hit in three to four hours.

Although the tsunami wave height might be just 3 feet, the potential for injury or property damage is high because of the power of the wave and the intensity of accompanying currents, compared with regular waves coming into the coast.

“The wave energy is much different,” Spratt said, with the roughly once-an-hour tsunami waves also having potential to send debris crashing into the coastline. “These currents are stronger than the strongest of rip currents.”

Depending on the wave path, an inlet like Port Canaveral or Sebastian Inlet could be the most vulnerable, Spratt said, because the wave could be funneled into the inlet.

If public is caught off-guard, Spratt said, a tsunami “could create a panic and create a lot of confusion.”