The Real Tsunami

by Eric Soares on March 15, 2011

When Jim Kakuk and I formed the Tsunami Rangers kayak team 25 years ago, we thought the word tsunami was cool.  Most Americans couldn’t spell the word or even pronounce it.  The only actual tsunami we knew anything about was the one that hit Crescent City in northern California back in March, 1964 after the big earthquake in Alaska.  We were being fanciful by naming our sea kayaking team after a big wave and made a big deal about kayak surfing in normal waves.  We had no clue of the true potential destructive power of a tsunami.  But when the devastating quake and world’s worst tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, causing well over 200,000 deaths, we were mortified.

An inviting Crescent City beach with normal surf in 2008

Last year at about this time Jim and I were kayaking in New Zealand when a tsunami warning was issued, because of the massive earthquake in Chile.  We took the warning seriously.  Fortunately, no tsunami materialized.  But it was sobering.   In jest, our Kiwi friends blamed us, and we laughed with them.  Then, less than a month ago a quake tore apart Christchurch.  No one laughed.  We worried about our friends in New Zealand. 

Last Friday, a huge tsunami struck northern Japan.  My first thoughts were of my Japanese paddling partners Haruo Hasegawa and Satoru Yahata.  Were they okay?   Though hundreds of bodies had already been found and thousands were missing, I focused on the people I knew.  A disaster half the world away seemed at my doorstep. 

Mark Fraser waits to film the incoming tsunami from Japan. Luckily, the water only surged up the cliff a few times in Half Moon Bay.

As I watched the catastrophe unfold on television, the local newscaster interrupted and said that Crescent City and all American west coast communities were expected to get hit by a smaller version of the tsunami at any moment.  Sure enough, the Crescent City harbor again was totaled by a tsunami (though it had lost its punch by the time it reached the California coast).   

This terrible tsunami made me realize once again that our planet is fragile, and what impacts one nation affects us all.  And though our first task is to take care of our families and preserve our local community, we must remember that everyone is part of our extended family.  I speak for all of us Tsunami Rangers in offering our hopes and prayers for the people of Japan.  We will aid them in whatever ways we can, as they would do the same for us.

I would like to add one more thing:  for those of us who live in tsunami zones and earthquake-prone areas, please put together an emergency kit in your vehicle.  Since these cataclysmic events come with little or no warning, now is the time to prepare.  Want to know more?  Ask me about it.

Please feel free to add your thoughts by pressing the “comments” button below.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew Rossillon March 15, 2011 at 8:50 am

Great article Professor Soares! Totally agreed with your thoughts.

On a seperate, but similiar note – we (Wells Fargo) is/are accepting donations at any Wells Fargo ATM, where 100% of the donation goes toward Red Cross. Just wanted to throw that out there.

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Peter Donohue March 15, 2011 at 9:04 am

Not sure the Santa Cruz Harbor folks would agree with your assessment that “lost its punch by the time it reached the California coast”. Last check, 17 boats sunk, a dozen or so missing, and over 100 damaged.

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Jon Turk March 15, 2011 at 9:08 am

Yes, Eric, well said:
When I was paddling solo in the Solomon Islands a few years ago, there was an earthquake and Tsunami warning. All my loved ones in the US got the news, but I was camping out, alone, on a remote beach near a mangrove swamp and had no idea that danger lurked while I was sleeping. A few days later, I paddled into a village of stick and thatch houses and people were talking about the Tsunami that never materialized. Yes, we are a global village, pushed to planetary limits, vulnerable to and living with the earth.

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Paul McHugh March 15, 2011 at 9:31 am

Absolutely right, Rico! When I made my long trip down the north coast in ’05, and when I explored the Chonos archipelago off Chile in ’95, I carried a “bail-bag” between my knees in the cockpit. In a bad-case scenario, I would have a watertight float bag with food and equipment, should I get separated from my boat. For the absolute worst-cast scenario, I had a few small pouches with fire-starter, water treatment tabs, etc., tucked in pockets of my PFD. I recommend these policies. Remember, it’s always mo’ bettah to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it!

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Eric Soares March 15, 2011 at 9:34 am

Thanks, Andrew, for providing information on easy ways to donate.

Peter is absolutely right in that in addition to Crescent City’s harbor being totaled, Santa Cruz, Brookings, and other American cities were damaged substantially. When I said the wave “lost its punch” I meant compared to what happened in Japan, where entire communities were wiped off the face of the earth.

And Jon brings up an important issue–we are vulnerable when we camp on remote beaches anywhere in the world. As kayakers, we must flee to high ground if we feel shaking or hear or see the ocean suddenly recede. And Paul’s “cockpit kit” is right on!

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Padre jack March 15, 2011 at 11:20 am

Broaching on a different, though related wave, perhaps we ought to direct some of our tsunami energy to shutting down and sanitizing non-tsunami-proof coastal nuclear power plants…. Padre Jack

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FUJI March 15, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Eric,

Thanks for your thoughts.
Satoru YAHATA is OK with being remote from affected area.
I am in New Zealand and our families back in Japan are all fine, too.

But several friends of mine, living up in north of Japan, I still can not contact them yet.
What a tragedy.

FUJI

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John Soares March 15, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Tsunamis are a very real threat for many people, including most of those living on and near the west coast of the United States.

I lived in Crescent City for 2 years, just 200 feet from Pebble Beach. When I found out about the high degree of danger that city has of being inundated by a massive tsunami from an earthquake on a subduction-zone fault offshore, I moved.

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Chet Lane March 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Hi Eric,
Well said. I applaud the reference to Red Cross donations. It is the only organization that is ALWAYS there in catastrophies such as the Tsunami.

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Eric Soares March 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Jack, you’re right. Something must be done about unsafe nuclear power. Three reactors in Japan had explosions and another just caught fire. Citizens within 20 miles of the reactors are sheltering in place, and we’re all praying there isn’t a meltdown. We don’t need another Chernobyl. Meanwhile, the San Onofre & Diablo Canyon nuke plants in California (as examples) are right on the beach and vulnerable to a major quake or tsunami. The U.S. should be leading the way to safer renewable energy, but that won’t happen while there is money to be made with nukes, oil, coal. So cross your fingers and pass the potassium iodide.

Fuji, I’m glad your family and Satoru are okay. I hope you get word soon about your friends in the effected area. Our friend Haruo lives in Tokyo, so hopefully he is okay, but we have not received word from him.

John, you did the safe thing by moving–but to Mt. Shasta, a major volcano which could erupt? It seems that every place to live has its dangers. All one can do is prepare for them, or move. C’est la vie.

Many have told me that the Red Cross is the best relief organization to donate to at this time to help Japan. If anyone knows other appropriate agencies, please let us know. Also, the impacted communities in the U.S. (Santa Cruz for instance), may also need your assistance.

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John Soares March 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Composite volcanoes like Mount Shasta (and Mount St. Helens) give ample warning before they erupt. Plenty of time to load up the car and drive to Ashland.

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Jim Mault March 17, 2011 at 10:00 am

Your ignorance regarding the safety of nuclear power is stunning. Do your research. None were killed at Three Mile Island. None, after the intial 50 or so were killed in Chern. and the thyroid cancer was mostly cured. More people are killed in the production of coal, oil and believe it or not (do your research) wind power installation, which of course is being stifled due to the bird kill issue. I agree that consistant review & retrofitting utilizing the most up to date safety technology is manditory but the elimination of nuclear power in the U.S. will take 20% of our electric energy off line. Knee jerk reactions such as the mass consumption of Potassium Iodide in the U.S. will only lead to mass hypothyroidism. It should only be taken under the supervision of a doctor. Until the U.S. has a clear, consise energy policy we will continue to flouneder. The last 8 presidencies & 19 congresses have failed at their commitment to do so.

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Eric Soares March 17, 2011 at 11:42 am

Jim, I appreciate your comments, as I do of all readers. Please think it through before you write, and moderate your words in future comments. Statements such as “Your ignorance regarding the safety of nuclear power is stunning” are inflammatory, and perhaps that is your purpose….

I agree with you that people should do their homework on issues before spouting off. And, before I continue, I want to add that I am not a nuclear physicist and thus am not an expert on nuclear power or any other kind of electrical power. If you are, I will give your words the strong consideration they deserve.

I do try my best to state things succinctly, without too much bias, based either upon my own experience (as in the case of kayaking–this is a kayaking (not nuclear physics) blog) or on the experience of others or on facts gleaned from reputable sources. So, with that in mind, let me address some of the statements you made.

I didn’t mention Three Mile Island; you did. As I recall from news reports at the time, you are correct in that no direct deaths were attributed to the partial meltdown there. As to whether people suffered cancers later, that is for medical researchers to check out. You inferred from my statement that “…something must be done about unsafe nuclear power” that I meant that there is no such thing as safe nuclear power. I was referring to “unsafe” nuclear power. I do think that nuclear fission power is by its nature unstable and therefore generally unsafe (that is an opinion), but as an electrical source it has proved useful. What I hope for is that nuclear energy will be generated in as safe a manner as possible. In light of what happened in Japan (and is still unfolding), I am very concerned about reactors built in vulnerable places, such as the 2 California reactors located on the beach. That’s why I mentioned it in my earlier comment.

As for Chernobyl, I believe I was accurate and prudent in saying that “We don’t need another Chernobyl.” You are correct in stating that direct deaths at Chernobyl were 50 or so (some say less). Subsequent deaths due to cancer range from 4,000 to up to a million, depending upon the source. I don’t know for sure, and would side on the lower figure without more evidence. Still, it was a bad accident, the worst nuclear accident thus far. Many people in the Soviet Union and Europe had to evacuate. I believe over 300,000 people had to relocate. We don’t need another Chernobyl–wouldn’t you agree?

As for energy production, yes, coal mining is fraught with danger. Everyone would agree with that; and breathing coal smoke is unhealthy. And based on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it is evident that oil production is dangerous. I suppose that workers could fall off wind turbines during construction and maintenance, and the bird death issue is well-documented and not suppressed (I read about it in the SF Chronicle years ago).

I believe, that is, it’s my opinion, that renewable energy, done safely as possible, is the way to go, and as soon as possible. It’s unlikely that regional disasters will occur with renewable energy, and it’s renewable, not finite. And it pollutes less than oil and coal. And we won’t have dependence on foreign governments for our energy.

I agree with you wholeheartedly that the U.S. needs a “concise, clear energy policy.” BTW, I was joking when I said “Cross your fingers and pass the potassium iodide.” Like all minerals and nutrients, it shouldn’t be taken indiscriminately, as one can overdose from it.

Please note that my policy on my blog is “civil discourse only.” Please respect that, Jim. I welcome your future comments.

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Jim Mault March 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Excellent discourse Eric, It seems that we agree more than we disagree. I do apologize for my somewhat aggressive comments, it was mostly a reaction to what I feel are more emotional rather than fact based responses to almost anything that goes on in the world today. I came upon your website as a kayaker do enjoy the website. I believe that I fell into my own trap reacting to some of the comments I read. I was a long time subscriber to Outside Magazine until they became, what I feel, too over the top w/regards to environmental issues. It became more political that sports oriented. I know the two go somewhat hand-in-hand but it is nice to explore the sport w/out other contentious issues coming to the surface. It seems that we have become a society/world based on fear promulgated by all sides of the political world and media world. Honestly, I’d just like to go out for a paddle & fish.

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Eric Soares March 17, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Jim,

Apology accepted. And it does seem that society has become more fear oriented and polarized. Meanwhile, the most important thing for people like us is to go out for a paddle and fish–be in the real world.

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Jim Kennedy March 15, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Were all joined by the sea.
I was to go to Japan last week . Luckily never got
there. Our hearts go out to Japan from Ireland
A nuclear free zone thankfully. Thinking of all my friends
there and joining the global kayak community in support.
Jim Kennedy

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susan correia March 15, 2011 at 9:40 pm

I am with you regarding the global community and the need to be waaay more careful with nuclear plants. But my action item will be to update my first aid and emergency kits. …now, where did I put them?… ;-)

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micaila March 16, 2011 at 11:49 am

We always talk about working together… perhaps crisis can give birth to new evolution. –Yuka Saionji

It was good of you to post on Japan.

What is in your emergency kit?

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Eric Soares March 16, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Micaila, thanks for asking what’s in the emergency kit.

First, put sleeping bags, extra clothes (include coats, hats, shoes, gloves), 2 liters of water in stainless water bottles, fire extinguisher, big mag-type flashlight and road breakdown gear (e.g., chains, flares, battery cables, etc.) in your vehicle permanently. Then, buy a large “student bookpack” cheap somewhere and stuff it with the following:

extra money (bills and coins) & copies of ID; multitool (e.g., Leatherman, Swiss Army) and metal spork; 7 days of medicine; headlamp w/extra batteries; transistor radio w/extra batteries, pretuned to the emergency channel; iodine water purification tablets; lighters and waterproof matches; and a waterproof space blanket.

For nourishment, include the following in your kit: Gatorade-type drink (two plastic bottles @20 oz. each); high calorie canned food that does not need cooking (e.g., evaporated milk, corned beef hash, tuna in oil–3 of each or 9 total); other high calorie, well-packaged, easy to eat food (e.g., raisins or dried fruit, shelled peanuts or shelled sunflower seeds–1 pound of each). This should provide enough calories for at least 3 days.

Put your emergency kit in your trunk. Rotate nuts and fruits every 3 months and canned food every year.

If there is an earthquake, or tsunami warning, ASAP drive your car to the nearest high ground and turn it off. Stay in your car and periodically listen for emergency info on the car radio. Note: always keep your car gas tank at least 1/3 full.

Do NOT call people and chat on your cell phone. Turn it off to save power, and periodically turn it on for emergency communication.

If it’s not safe to stay in your car (e.g., the road is blocked and a tsunami could come), put on extra clothing (in winter, put on everything you have), strap on your emergency backpack (put your cell phone and wallet in), drape your emergency sleeping bag over your shoulders, grab your spare water, and proceed to a safe place (e.g., high ground away from buildings or a place designated by authorities to congregate).

Once you are in a safe place, conserve energy and relax. If you can help others, do so, but don’t lose your stuff. Wait until you are hungry to eat your first meal. Eat out of the cans and then use them to hold water or food for yourself or others. After you drink the Gatorade, use the bottles for water (all water must be treated with iodine).

Depending upon your personal needs, where you live, and the season, you may vary what goes into the emergency kit. For example, if it’s winter or you live in a moist climate, include rain gear. As Paul McHugh wrote earlier: It’s mo bettah to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

It turns out that 95% of Americans have NO emergency kit in their cars. It’s important to put it in your car, because your car is handy in your driveway or in a parking lot wherever you are. If you have no car, you still need a kit, but at your home. I hope this helps!

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Eiichi March 16, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Helli Eric,
How do you do?
Tess introduced you to me.
I read your blog. It is very interesting!!!

BTW, Japan received the quake damage as reported. A lot of my friends lost everything. I am serving as the president of QajaqJPN. To support them as a club, we are asking for help to foreign countries. I’LL publish the information in the QajaqJPN website by the end of today or tomorrow. Please check it.
I’m sorry for doing such asking to you of the first meeting.
Please keep in touch.

With best regards
Eiichi

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Eric Soares March 16, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Eiichi,

Thank you for contacting me at this challenging time. I am including your website here so people can know what to do to help the people of Japan.

Readers, please connect to http://www.qajaq.jp for information.

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Dr. Bruce MacNab March 17, 2011 at 8:52 am

Eric, your recommendations for emergency gear are right on. We,up here in the Sierras, are in pretty good shape but this winter, five days with waist-deep snow, and no power or heat beyond the good old wood stove, bring us back to reality quickly. I would add any powdered energy source, which can be mixed in water or milk, to the kit. We have it aboard ours. Our life-long friends in Tokyo, are safe but battered…live on the 14th floor of a building…rolling black outs, irregular trains, glass and ceramic objects smashed but alive and dealing with demands of seriously impaired urban living. No word yet from others further north…praying.
Cheers,
Bruce

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Eric Soares March 17, 2011 at 9:06 am

Bruce, Powdered energy is a good addition (be sure to use purified water). Thanks. Each of you will have to decide what food items to put in your kit. Vegetarians may not want corned beef, but everyone will want food with lots of calories.

Earlier, Susan Correia mentioned a first aid kit. This should be in your car as a permanent item. It is useful to learn first aid and CPR from the Red Cross or other reputable organization so you can use your first aid kit and learn how to respond to medical situations.

For kayakers, it is useful to learn “mountaineering first aid” or other advanced first aid techniques that teach you how to improvise splints, bandages, etc., in the wilderness–or in a regional emergency.

The point is to be prepared. The more people who have emergency kits, the fewer who will need handouts during the first few days of a catastrophe, when relief efforts are still getting organized. May I suggest that you go out and put together your kit TODAY?

One more thing. My friend Will Nordby emailed me and said that it’s a good idea to make emergency plans with your family, friends, and neighbors. I agree.

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Moulton Avery April 3, 2011 at 12:05 am

Great stuff as usual, Eric; both the blog and the lion’s share of the comments. I tried really hard to resist the temptation to weigh in on the nukes, but regret to say that I failed miserably. Maybe next time I’ll be better able to restrain myself.

The bottom line on safety with respect to nuclear power plants is, in my view, best summed up by the phrase “How Lucky Do You Feel”. Where sincere and decent people like Jim Mault and I part company is in the way we view what I like to call the First Law of Unanticipated Consequences. He believes in the potential infallibility of modern technology, whereas I most definitely do not, and the facts, I hasten to point out, are 100% on my side of the argument. Complex mechanical systems, designed by very bright people, fail with stunning regularity. This should come as no surprise, because regardless of whether we’re talking sea kayak self-rescue, fighter jets, space shuttles, or nuclear power plants, there really is no such thing as an “infallible” system. That much is indisputable.

In this respect, the nuclear power safety issue has very little to do with whether or not people died in previous incidents and accidents, and everything to do with the potential ramifications of a catastrophic system failure. What could happen is, in other words, far more significant than what has happened. No one should ever consider the phrase “it’s never happened before” as a good safety argument. Things that have never happened before do, in fact, happen all the time. From a safety standpoint, in addition to the potential failure of mechanical systems at nuclear power plants, we must also consider the possibility of human error, environmental catastrophe, and terrorism.

As we have clearly seen in Japan, potentially catastrophic problems can arise independently of the reactor itself, should the integrity of spent fuel storage pools be compromised. In most US plants, as in Japan, these storage pools are located outside the reactor containment building(s), so if they crash and burn, there’s nothing to contain the subsequent release of radioactive material. Another first-timer, this type of release had never occurred prior to the Fukushima accident, however its potential significance was widely recognized, and in the opinion of many experts, it constitutes a potentially greater safety issue. The fact that the Japanese are also contending, in part, with spent “MOX” fuel rods is particularly disconcerting because of the potential for the release of plutonium, one of the most toxic substances known to man (or woman).

Eric is on very firm ground, particularly when he expresses concern with respect to the San Onofre & Diablo Canyon plants. Does it take a genius to figure out that it’s a bad idea to locate such facilities where they could be subject to major damage from things like earthquakes and tsunamis? I don’t think so. In my book, that kind of technological hubris is just begging for trouble.

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John Lull May 10, 2011 at 11:54 am

I’m chiming in here late regarding the Tsunami, because my computer crashed and I was off-line for a few weeks. Got a new computer and I’m back in business.

On the day of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, June and I observed the same phenomema as Michael. We watched the ocean near ‘surfer’s beach’ just south of the Pillar Point Harbor breakwater. No, we didn’t join the crowd that rushed up to the top of 92 & Skyline in their pajamas at the break of dawn, hours before the Tsunami was due to hit our coast. Instead we watched what happened in Hawaii, Oregon, and Crescent City where the waves arrived well ahead of arriving here in Half Moon Bay. When it was obvious that the energy had spread out (more on that below) to the point that the waves were not going to be a problem here, we walked over to see if anything at all could be observed.

What we saw was interesting and rather strange if you are used to how the ocean normally behaves (otherwise you wouldn’t have noticed much of anything). The tide was out, the beach was exposed, and the surf was small, but every 10 minutes or so, the water would rise up, covering the beach and just reach the low cliff at the back of the beach. Then in another 10 minutes it would move back out. In effect, it was exactly as if the tide was coming in and going out every few minutes, instead of the usual 12 hour cycle. This was the effect of very long period waves with extremely long wavelengths (the tsunami!). And we could see actual tide rips at the mouth of the harbor, which I’ve never seen there in the 22 years I’ve lived here. So a lot of water was sloshing in and out of the harbor.

Here’s a quick explanation of why the tsunami was not as devastating in California as it was in Japan. Obviously the seafloor uplift that resulted from the massive subduction zone earthquake and caused the tsunami was much closer to Japan. But wave energy is mostly presevered even when moving several thousand miles across the ocean. Those of us who have been slam-dunked in the surf by waves generated in distant storms can attest to that. So if that wave energy had been confined to a narrow channel all the way across the Pacific, it would have demolished the California coast, same as in Japan. Instead, the energy was spread out across the entire Pacific Basin. It wasn’t diminished, it just spread out so the wave energy was ‘shared’ over a huge area, and therefore much less energy was focused on any given spot. The wave energy didn’t have the space or time to spread out prior to hitting the Japanese coast.

Regarding Santa Cruz and Fort Bragg harbors, those harbors are long narrow inlets that funnel any rise in sea level. Normally the tide rises and falls gradually over a 12 hour period (it rises for 6 hous, then falls for 6 hours), so the resulting current is very weak. Maybe 1 knot or less. In this case, the same amount of water was squeezed in and out of the harbor every 10 minutes or so, resulting in much stronger currents and a back and forth movement. I don’t know what the current was, but looking at footage of Santa Cruz harbor, I’d guess at least 8 to10 knots, maybe more. And that water rushed in and out multiple times, every few minutes, over a few hours. No wonder there was damage to the piers and boats.

Anyway, I could go on about the type of earthquakes that generate tsunamis, but this post has been too long already. The only thing I’ll say about the nuclear power plants is that we’d be wise to follow Europe’s example and build smaller reactors, and it’s absolutely crazy to built any reactors right in an active fault zone, as we’ve done here in California.

John

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Eric Soares May 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Thanks for your tsunami explanation, John.

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John Kirk-Anderson June 27, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Maps!!! Have paper maps of your surrounding area in your bail-out-bag, whether in your kayak, vehicle, or at home.

Following one of our recent serious earthquakes, my wife’s vehicle complete with emergency supplies, was trapped and abandoned in a multistory parking building. Fortunately my vehicle was accessable and she evacuated the destroyed city but as most roads were damaged she was forced to travel an unfamiliar route. The maps she had in her BOB which was under her desk when our building partially collapsed and she took with her were vital.

GPS would be useful but I have discovered that my iPhone maps don’t work when there is no cell coverage, which has gone out in several of our quakes.

Cheers

JKA

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Eric Soares June 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm

JKA, Thanks for your excellent suggestion about maps. As a survivor of the recent Christchurch quake, you know what you are talking about.

As a non-tech guy (I don’t have a GPS in my truck), I stuff my vehicles with maps (city, state, forest, etc.). But when writing the comment above about what to put in your vehicle emergency kit, I assumed (gulp) that everyone naturally carried maps. I stand corrected and urge everyone to put relevant maps in your car. Where I live in the mountains, for instance, it’s important to get forest service-type maps so you know where “Road N253917A” goes.

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Moulton Avery June 28, 2011 at 7:19 am

In my book, GPS is really great, but when it comes to reliability, nothing beats a map, compass and altimeter. Non-electronic compass and altimeter, that is…

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