Tsunami scare raises issue of warnings
November 18, 2006
The following correction to this story was posted Nov. 18: A Nov. 18 story should have said Misawa city officials alerted city residents to the tsunami warning by loudspeaker Wednesday night.
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The 8.1-magnitude earthquake that struck off the northeast coast of Japan on Wednesday night could have been a silent killer.
Americans living in the small northern Japanese city of Misawa, both on and off base, mostly said Thursday they felt no tremors and were surprised to learn about the subsequent tsunami warning — whether later that evening or the next day.
Some learned of the high-wave alert shortly after Japan issued an 8:29 p.m. advisory.
Base resident Tech. Sgt. Ivan Aguigui, 33, was watching television, about to doze off, when he saw an American Forces Network alert scroll across the bottom of the screen shortly before 9 p.m., advising viewers to stay away from the ocean.
“I was like ‘Oh, that was going on,’” he said. “I didn’t feel a thing,” he said of the quake.
Edgren High School math teacher Scott Quinn, on the other hand, didn’t find out about the tsunami alert until about 10 a.m. Thursday at school.
“I was kind of shocked this morning when I came in and heard,” he said.
Quinn lives off base. He could have seen the same advisory Aguigui saw had he tuned to Channel 66, the only AFN channel available to off-base residents who don’t have a satellite and decoder box. AFN’s 1575 AM radio — another venue for off-base residents to get information — also carried a live broadcast about the situation, but Quinn said it would be nice to have a more immediate warning system for Americans off base.
“I think Japanese warn each other on their loudspeakers, but we have no idea what they’re saying. We don’t have any way of hearing of anything unless someone has a phone tree,” Quinn said.
About 1,400 Americans assigned to Misawa live off base. If a threat was deemed high enough, base officials could implement a “recall” by phone of all off-base military and civilian personnel, said 35th Fighter Wing and base commander Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella.
The base almost did a recall Wednesday night after the tsunami advisory was issued, Angelella said, but it was deemed unnecessary when the tsunami forecast was reduced to a maximum of 16-inch waves.
“That’s not really a big threat,” he said.
A tsunami, depending on the location of the earthquake that triggered it, can take hours to hit land, but sometimes only minutes. The recall process — similar to a phone tree directed at the flight, squadron and unit levels — can take time, Angelella said.
“When we do [practice] recalls, we grade ourselves actually by the hour. A lot of units make it in an hour, but it does take a while,” he said.
In a short-notice situation, the base could employ its “giant voice,” a system of loudspeakers to alert base residents, Angelella said. And off base, “we could also call the city and have them activate their sirens.”
“I would get the word out,” he added.
A Misawa city spokesman said Thursday the city had no plans to make announcements in English over its loudspeakers. He said he could not say whether the city would do so if asked by the base. The city did not broadcast a tsunami warning over its loudspeakers Wednesday night but, like the base, warned people through local television advisories.
Joe Stevens, an Air Force retiree living in the city, said he feels fortunate to have a Japanese wife.
“I was alerted of the fact when it happened,” he said of Wednesday’s news. “But there are times when she’s working that it would nice to have some kind of warning system.”
'Harbor waves' have always plagued Japan
Misawa Air Base sits at an elevation of about 110 feet, two to three miles from the Pacific Coast — not exactly in tsunami alley. But some off-base residents do live close to the beach. And as Edgren High School math teacher Scott Quinn pointed out, some Americans spend weekends near the ocean on a popular pastime in northern Japan: hunting for the glass globe balls fisherman use to buoy their nets.
“I would say most people in the Misawa city area are at a higher elevation to not worry about a tsunami, but who knows, there have been tsunamis on record 300 feet high,” Quinn said.
The Japanese coined the word tsunami, which means “harbor wave.” Tsunamis most commonly are triggered by undersea earthquakes. Over the centuries, these giant waves have devastated the island nation, claiming at least 66,000 lives since 684 A.D., according to the Associated Press.
One of the country’s deadliest tsunamis struck the main island of Honshu in 1896, killing an estimated 27,000. The wave struck while many coastal residents were in the streets celebrating a holiday.
Misawa last was hit by a deadly tsunami in 1933, when 27 people were killed or went missing and 49 people were injured, said Misawa city official Satoshi Tate. Thirty-eight houses were washed away and 10 were partially destroyed.
Wednesday’s 8.1-magnitude quake hit the Kuril islands north of Japan.
Despite preliminary warnings that waves off Japan’s northern Pacific Coast could reach 6 feet or higher, the biggest wave recorded was 31 inches at Miyake Island at 4:09 a.m. Thursday, according to the Japan Meterological Agency. The highest wave recorded at Hachinohe, a port city about 10 miles southeast of Misawa, was 23 inches at 3:07 a.m.
— Jennifer H. Svanand Hana Kusumoto