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The Fault in the Facts: Do tsunamis look like they do on TV?

The Fault in the Facts: Do tsunamis look like they do on TV?
Updated: Apr. 27, 2022 at 3:00 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - On the television and internet, tsunamis are portrayed many ways — from towering, cresting waves, to a quickly receding shoreline. But is that what a tsunami really looks like?

In continuation of the last installment of The Fault in the Facts where we explained whether what happened in Tonga can happen in Alaska, we will strike down any faults in the facts and explain whether tsunamis look like they do on TV.

An expert will explain the science, and a survivor of the 1964 Valdez tsunami created by the Good Friday earthquake will recount what real tsunamis actually look like.

The facts

Dave Snider with the Tsunami Warning Center said tsunamis probably don’t look like they do on TV.

“We draw them in breaking waves that look a lot like surf waves in a lot of cartoons and animations because it’s really hard to conceptualize what a significant tsunami would appear as,” Snider said. “What we do know, is that from places like Tohoku in 2011, it looks a lot more like a great flood coming in off of the ocean, and it just keeps coming and coming until it crests over 18-foot sea walls and inundates cities and starts moving homes, businesses and places that normally are untouchable by seawater.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 18,000 people died in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The water impacted more than 1,200 miles of the country’s coastline, with wave heights measuring up to nearly 130 feet.

As survivors have witnessed, there are many misconceptions when it comes to what tsunamis look and act like.

“It might appear as kind of a growing crest of water, but not a breaking surf wave,” Snider said. “It wouldn’t look anything like a towering wave, most likely. It would just continue to be added water level rising and rising until it moves over places that are usually dry.”

Snider said a real tsunami isn’t just one wave, as many fiction productions wrongly visualize.

“A tsunami is a series of waves, and the first wave may not be the greatest surge of water that you experience during that time,” he said.

Every tsunami and coastline is different, he said. Waves can continue for hours, and sometimes days, and not all tsunamis start with the same warning signs.

“The water may not recede first before surging in at a higher level,” Snider said. “... The water could simply surge in first before it retreats again, and then comes back in a second or third wave.”

One of the greatest threats lurks inside the water.

“There’s going to be a lot of debris and things that are in the water that shouldn’t be in the water that would cause great harm to you if you’re trying to move through that water,” Snider said.

The survival story

In early spring in Southcentral Alaska, small flakes of snow fall to the ground, melting before any trace of them can be seen on the wet and recently uncovered pavement.

The water near the shoreline is flowing fast enough for the melting ice chunks to swiftly move past. The tide is quickly rushing in as the sun sets, leaving an orange glow streaming across the water. The ice chunks can occasionally be heard smashing into each other.

Melting ice chunks seen off the coast of Southcentral Alaska in early spring
Melting ice chunks seen off the coast of Southcentral Alaska in early spring(KTUU)

It may seem like a calm evening by the water, but it’s as good of time as any for tsunami danger.

“Tsunamis don’t have a season,” Snider said. “... Earthquakes happen all the time. About 85% of tsunamis are caused by significant earthquakes, and those can happen all year long.”

It was March 27, 1964, when Dan Kendall, now 70, witnessed the Valdez tsunami that succeeded the magnitude 9.2 Great Alaska Earthquake.

“My perspective and experience is told from the standpoint of a 12-year-old,” Kendall said. “... This is the biggest adventure that could ever come (a) young boy’s way.”

For Kendall and his family, Valdez had been home for about eight years at the time.

“We left Valdez the next day at noon, after the earthquake and tidal waves,” he said. “... It was obvious the town wasn’t habitable after the earthquake.”

That evening, prior to the earthquake, Kendall went to the dock with two boys he knew from school to greet a ship.

“After a while, they said, ‘Well, let’s play hide and go seek,’ and we did that for a while, and I realized it wasn’t hide and go seek, it was ‘Ditch Danny.’”

With dinner time approaching, Kendall decided to head home. The boys stayed behind. It was the last time he would see them.

“As I’m going home off the dock, other people I know are walking onto the dock,” he said. “I walked home into the house, and the earthquake started.”

Within minutes, a tsunami hit Valdez’s coast.

“There’s only one person I know that passed me going to the dock and when the earthquake started he was still on the approach to the dock and he ran back,” Kendall said. “He’s actually the last survivor.”

Kendall and a few of his siblings embraced their childlike adventure and went into the street, splashing in the water that was making its way far past the shoreline.

“We walked down basically until we got our feet wet from the water coming in,” he said. “That’s kind of when we came to our senses and said, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t be here.’”

As a small kid, he said he didn’t realize he was witnessing a deadly disaster.

“The wave didn’t come in this far with a strong force like you’d imagine,” Kendall said, referencing a photo.

Valdez shortly after the 1964 earthquake, tsunami
Valdez shortly after the 1964 earthquake, tsunami(Bill Kendall)

“It came into town like an extra high tide and brought a lot of debris with it. You know, there was nothing that wasn’t touched by the earthquake, and the after effects, the waves.”

At the time, the tsunami was wiping out the dock. The ship’s onlookers were now gone.

“I knew all of them. There were 33, something like that,” he said. “... They found one body, and that was our neighbor directly behind us.”

Later that evening, his mother asked him take on a burden. It’s one that would help ease his neighbor’s trauma.

“She took me around to the family’s houses to tell that I saw their dad or their son or their brother on the dock. That was a very sad moment for me,” Kendall said. “... That was probably the most emotional part of that day, completely.”

Now, 58 years later, Kendall looks back on a photo of the dock’s ruins as a memorial.

“The life of Valdez was right there at that moment,” he said. “... This represents to me the people that perished on that day.

“There was there was something bigger than me that told me to go home, and I did that.”

Ruins left in Old Valdez
Ruins left in Old Valdez(Dan Kendall)

A 12-year-old kept his life, just blocks from where people were losing theirs.

“My Protestant friends always ask me if I’ve been saved, and I say, ‘Well, I was saved on March 27, 1964, at 5:36 p.m.,’” he said. “I mean, it’s a clear event in my life that just changed dramatically.”

How to be prepared

Now that we know what tsunamis really do look like, Snider explained what to do if a tsunami is headed your way.

He said the Tsunami Warning Center encourages people at the first sign of danger to move away from the coastline as quickly as possible. Those signs include warnings from the National Tsunami Warning Center or a long, strong shaking. It could also be seeing the water recede, do unusual things or make unusual sounds.

He stressed that it’s important to act immediately.

“An earthquake lasting longer than 20 seconds is a really good sign that you’re experiencing a significant earthquake,” Snider said. “If it’s close to you, that means a tsunami could be arriving in less than 10 to 15 minutes. It’s time to head to higher ground.”

Once you get there, Snider said to wait for further instructions. If you are in a harbor or marina, get off the water and gain elevation.

“We recommend people move in one mile inland or 100 feet up, or both,” he said.

If you are already that far inland and that high up, Snider said you may not need to evacuate right away.

“The best thing to do is check with your local emergency management. Help them help you find that evacuation route and that risk map for your community and know if you’re in danger,” he said.

However, Snider said, not everything goes as planned in emergency situations. If you do find yourself in tsunami waters, you should still work on getting out of the water.

“Try and find some type of high ground or building or structure to climb up on and wait it out until rescue arrives,” he said.

Snider said loss of life is the greatest risk from any tsunami. According to the World Health Organization, in the 19-year period between 1998 and 2017, more than 250,000 deaths worldwide were attributed to tsunamis. More than 90% of those were from one event — the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004.

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