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Federal officials advise Americans to continue heeding tsunami warnings

Officials emphasized the unpredictability of seismic events such as the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan. The window for aftereffects can be 'up to 12 hours, or even longer,' weather service deputy director says.

March 11, 2011|By Michael A. Memoli, Washington Bureau
  • FEMA has warned Americans to continue to be alert to the tsunami risk in coastal areas like Half Moon Bay in Northern California.
FEMA has warned Americans to continue to be alert to the tsunami risk in coastal… (Kim White / Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — Federal officials urged Americans to continue to heed all tsunami warnings until they are lifted, saying the initial effect is not necessarily the worst.

"There can be surges, currents and other problems -- particularly in bays and harbors and around islands -- that can impact you for up to 12 hours, or even longer," said Laura Furgione, deputy director of the National Weather Service. "The first wave is not necessarily the end of your problem."

FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said that to this point, damage to the United States appears to be limited, centered on marinas, boats and roads near the water. Most of the damage is likely to private property, he said, but the federal government is ready should state officials call for assistance.

Photos: Scenes from the earthquake

The United States, through USAID, is deploying two of FEMA's urban search-and-rescue teams to Japan at its government's request, Fugate said.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call Friday, officials emphasized the unpredictability of seismic events such as the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan Friday. Even with a tsunami that comes with hours of warning, advanced preparedness is essential to minimize damage and loss of life.

Government models show that waves are dying down, and warnings had already been lifted for the Western Aleutian Islands. Crescent City, Ca., appears to have been one of the hardest-hit areas in the U.S., with an 8.1-foot wave recorded just before noon PST. But its status as one of 83 communities designated as "tsunami-ready" did "help them in this situation," Furgione said.

Videos of the earthquake

Dave Applegate of the U.S. Geological Survey described the earthquake and ensuing tsunami as a "low probability, high consequence event." Something on this scale happens only once every few hundred years, he said, and "When they do happen it's catastrophic."

The energy released by Friday's quake released 1,000 times more energy than the one last year that devastated Haiti, pushing waves "at airline speeds" across the Pacific. It occurred in an area that had seen little seismic activity for more than a 1,000 years. But there's no evidence that the seismic release would trigger a comparable event at the opposite end of the "Ring of Fire" along the coastal U.S., Applegate said.

Photos: Scenes from the earthquake

michael.memoli@latimes.com

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