California experienced a fortunate near-miss on March 11, as a massive earthquake generated a tsunami that devastated Japan’s shoreline and then traveled across the Pacific, reaching the United States twelve hours later.

Even though much of the coast was spared substantial damage, several cities are facing the challenge of cleaning up after waves reached more than 8 feet on Friday. In Crescent City, where the natural design of the coastline amplifies the effects of the waves, docks were destroyed and boats sunk as water rushed into and out of the port. The currents were caught on this time-lapse video. To give you an idea of the strength of the water, watch at 1:10, as a boat appears to be powering out of the harbor. Unfortunately, that boat is still tied to its dock and is entirely at the mercy of the tsunami.

For California, the event could have been much worse. Since the earthquake actually struck in Japan, the tsunami’s 12-hour travel time gave Californians ample amount of time to seek higher ground. Because the waves arrived during low tide, the effects were minimized.

But when you compare the Californian and Hawaiian experiences, you see how different it could have been.

On Maui, waves reached similar heights as they did in Crescent City, but the waves arrived during high tide. Streets were flooded and homes suffered damage. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

Municipal services returned to normal shortly after the water receded and the process of cleanup and recovery began rapidly.

The Hawaiian Islands benefited from careful planning and expert implementation.

Their extensive plans and training are a result of the islands history with disasters. The islands have suffered at least 5 major tsunamis since the 1940s, including a 35-foot tsunami in 1960 and a 26-foot tsunami in 1975. 
For instance, look at Maui, which three hours before the expected arrival of the waves shut down its wastewater treatment facilities. This prevented a situation of “wastewater inundation,” where flooding overwhelms the system, leaving areas flooded with untreated sewage. Once the waters receded, services were restarted.

It is important to take a moment and recognize that natural disasters can affect any municipality at any time. How would places like Santa Cruz, Crescent City, or other communities facing the dangers of tsunamis changed their disaster plans had the earthquake struck in Hawaii, leaving only five hours before the waves began to reach the shore instead of 12?

In other words, now is the time to review emergency preparedness and disaster response scenarios. How and when do schools reopen? What steps would be taken to restore power, gas, and other infrastructure necessities? How will the public be notified of dangers before the disaster, and how will they be kept informed of efforts for recovery?

Japan is one of the most industrialized countries in the world, yet they struggled to deliver basic services for their citizens in the wake of the disaster. With infrastructure decimated by the waves and littered with debris, many communities were forced to fend for themselves for days, before national resources could be brought in.

Even then, aid’s arrival was only facilitated in many places by individual residents taking up shovels and brooms to clear the roads to allow access for emergency services. Clearly, those towns didn’t plan to rely on individuals with hand tools, but they did.

That may be the lesson that can be gleaned from Japan; the response plans in place turned out to be insufficient when faced with large-scale disaster. Tens of thousands of Japanese citizens evacuated to shelters, only to find them at capacity or without basic supplies like blankets. Drinking water was in short supply, as was ice, food, and power.

During the chaos that can follow disasters, improvisation can be costly and confusing. Carefully examining these questions during calm can lead to clear answers and failsafe practices. 

There is no earthquake season, just as there is no tsunami season. Constant vigilance is required for proper precautions.