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A Review of Deadly Tsunamis That Hit American Shores

The waves generated on American shores by the March 11 Sendai earthquake may have been mild compared to those striking Japan, but history shows that tsunamis pose a deadly threat on the eastern shores of the Pacific.

Tsunami response efforts in the United States may seem melodramatic considering the difference in magnitude of the threat here and in Japan. However, tsunamis have been known to kill people and cause property destruction over thousands of miles, including in the United States. It's worth looking at the record of tsunamis in the United States to see how seriously the threat should be taken.

It's important to bear in mind that there is much to be learned about tsunamis, not least because major events happen less frequently than, say, Atlantic hurricanes. Local effects of large tsunamis, even at vast distances from the earthquake epicenter, can be highly unpredictable owing to the role of local topography. Worse effects have been known to occur in sea inlets than on the coast proper because of funneling effects of estuary channels. The devastating Dec. 26 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami was to this type of catastrophe what Mt. St. Helens was to volcanic eruptions, in terms of triggering intensified scientific research and shedding new light on the phenomenon.

However, experience had long demonstrated the United States' vulnerability to tsunamis. Here is a review of the major events since the middle of the 20th century:

1946 Aleutian Tsunami: A magnitude 7.8 earthquake centered off Unimak Island in the Aleutian chain, killing five men nearby and resulting in 159 deaths in Hawaii, mostly in Hilo on the island of Hawaii.

Chilean Earthquake of 1960: The overall death toll from this event was 1,886, including 61 tsunami-related deaths in Hawaii. The tsunami waves reached right across the Pacific, causing 132 deaths in Japan and dozens of fatalities in the Philippines.

1964 Alaskan Tsunami: This event killed

1964 Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami: The most powerful earthquake in U.S. history, this event killed 130 people overall, 9 in the earthquake itself, the rest in subsequent tsunamis. In Alaska, 106 people were killed by related tsunamis, and a further 16 were killed in Oregon and California. The deaths of 12 people in Crescent City, Calif., just south of the Oregon border, represented the worst tsunami event ever in the contiguous 48 states.

1975 Hawaii Earthquake and Tsunami: A 7.2 magnitude earthquake on Nov. 29, 1975 generated a tsunami that killed two people.

Hawaii has suffered other tsunamis that have created extensive property damage but no loss of life. A full review of major Hawaii events, including some of the ones listed above, can be seen here.

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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