Heed your elders, survive a tsunami

An oral tradition passed down among islanders in the South Pacific—”run to high ground after an earthquake”—saved many lives during a tsunami last year and illustrates the benefits that community-based education and awareness programs can provide, scientists say.

On April 2, 2007, a magnitude-8.1 temblor struck about 50 kilometers (km) south of the New Georgia Islands, northeast of Australia. A tsunami spawned by that quake damaged or destroyed more than 6,000 buildings in 300 communities and killed 52 people, says Hermann M. Fritz, a civil engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Savannah. Less than 5 minutes after the ground stopped shaking, a wave 5 meters (m) tall swept more than 100 m inland on Simbo Island, completely destroying the village of Tapurai.

Because elderly residents of Tapurai had experienced a smaller temblor and tsunami in 1959, they often warned young villagers to immediately seek high ground in case of a quake. As a result, says Fritz, only 7 of the community’s 241 residents died in last year’s disaster.

A telling counterexample to Tapurai’s success comes from the Peruvian fishing village of Lagunilla, whose residents didn’t know to run for the hills after a quake. After a magnitude-8.0 temblor struck about 60 km offshore last August, a tsunami killed 43 percent of the village’s residents, even though the wave there was half the size of Tapurai’s, high ground was closer, and warning time was longer.

Oral tradition can serve as an effective early-warning system for tsunamis, Fritz and colleague Nikos Kalligeris of the Technical University of Crete in Chania, Greece, propose in the Jan. 16 Geophysical Research Letters. “Knowing what to do is what saves lives,” Fritz says.

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