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Monitoring Mother Nature

Scientists at Reston's U.S. Geological Survey Aim to Avert Tsunami Damage

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page VA20

USGS, a fixture in Reston for more than three decades, is one of the lead federal agencies responding to the earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people in 11 countries.

Agency scientists, many of whom live in Northern Virginia, have been charged with determining what the government can do to reduce the threat from earthquakes and tsunamis not only around the world but also along the coastal United States.

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"When you have an event like this, it just reenergizes you to do everything that you can to make sure we don't see this happen again, where there is a risk of a lot of victims," said USGS geologist David Applegate, the agency's senior science adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards.

Among other things, since the disaster hit Dec. 26, USGS has:

• Announced plans to strengthen its ability to detect tsunamis and earthquakes, coordinating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Though the last major tsunami in the United States occurred in 1964 after an earthquake in Alaska, the nation's coastal areas still are vulnerable, said P. Patrick Leahy, the survey's associate director for geology.

• Provided disaster relief organizations with pre- and post-tsunami satellite photos to determine which areas were hit hardest and how to carry out the relief efforts.

• Sent scientists to Sri Lanka and Indonesia to investigate the tsunami, with the goal of using the information to protect vulnerable areas of the United States and the rest of the world.

One of those scientists, Bruce E. Jaffe, said in an interview that the existing warning system is good for tsunamis that travel over a long distance before striking. "But in the Pacific Northwest," Jaffe said, "a tsunami reaches the coast in a half-hour. You need to have planning to be able to mitigate the hazards, and plan effectively to know how large they are and how often they will occur."

Research on the Indian Ocean tsunami has just begun for the USGS and scores of other scientific agencies around the globe. But the geological survey, which at the age of 125 is one of the oldest federal agencies, is well ahead in its study of earthquakes and tsunamis, part of its mission to study the "geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain" as its original charter called for.

Because it is a fact-finding agency, the survey's job is to provide unbiased scientific information to its parent agency, the Department of the Interior, as well as policymakers, public officials and the public. It now employs some 10,000 people -- about 1,800 in Reston -- who scour the country to study, map and minimize loss of life and property in natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes and flooding, and to study natural resources and wildlife.

USGS was one of the first major employers to locate in the Reston-Herndon area in the early 1970s, and its employees are central players in community activities.

They also are among the most loyal in the federal workforce, in part because the agency has a reputation for being a friendly place where people often stay a while. Elizabeth Stettner, manager of the USGS Visitors Center, has been there 26 years; her father was at USGS 13 years. Karen Wood, a public affairs specialist, has been at the agency 17 years; her father worked there for 38.

When it comes to earthquake research, the USGS is one of the world's epicenters of expertise. Its National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado receives satellite data from 350 monitoring stations around the world, and scientists there issue estimates of an earthquake's magnitude as the data arrive.

That information is passed along to the Pacific tsunami warning centers in Alaska and Hawaii, which watch for the risk of tsunamis in the Pacific Ocean region. (Tragically, no such system exists for the Indian Ocean region).

USGS scientists say a tsunami in the Washington area is highly unlikely. But on the Pacific Coast, where the land is more volatile, the possibility is very real. Coastal areas of the Pacific were struck by tsunamis in 1946, 1957, 1960 and 1964, three of which together killed hundreds of people. A tsunami lashed Hawaii in 1975, killing two people.

Just off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., for example, recent USGS studies of the ocean floor concluded that future earthquakes could cause "devastating" tsunamis. The agency is now working on a program to predict the possibility of a tsunami and its severity in areas such as the Pacific and the Caribbean, said Dawn Lavoie, associate program coordinator of the coastal and marine geology program at USGS.

One lesson this country can learn from December's Indian Ocean tsunami was that the removal of natural barriers -- coral reefs and mangrove trees along the coast, for example -- made the tsunami far more destructive, Lavoie said.

"There was absolutely nothing between [those on the beaches] and the water coming in," she said.

To better predict the potential destruction of an earthquake or tsunami, the agency is developing computerized maps called "shake maps," which literally chart where the ground is shaking based on data from embedded sensors.

The maps combine local population data with information on the route that the earthquake took, so rescue personnel know where to respond first -- "not just to tell them where an earthquake happened," but also where the actual destruction and population coincided, Applegate said.

He said the agency has produced such maps for California, Salt Lake City, Anchorage and Seattle but wants to expand the effort to include the 22 other areas of the country and its territories also considered at risk, such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The two USGS scientists who traveled to Sri Lanka were part of a team studying the impact of the tsunami. They recently returned, overwhelmed by what they had seen.

"This is the fourth tsunami I have gone to, and this is far and away the largest I've seen. It's still sinking in, the devastation I saw," said Jaffe, an oceanographer at the survey's Pacific Science Center in Santa Cruz, Calif. "We have a scientist in Banda Aceh [Indonesia] who I talked to by satellite phone. When I was there, the [rise in the] water levels from the tsunami we measured were 15 to 30 feet. He's seen them on the coast that are 80 to 90 feet."

By measuring the rise in water levels and how far inland the tsunami flooded the land, Jaffe said, scientists have determined that the damage from the Dec. 26 tsunami varied greatly from place to place.

"We need to know what causes those variations," Jaffe said. "If you're planning for the next one, you need to know which areas will be hit hard and which will be spared."

What they learn, the scientists said, could save lives. "In a time of crisis and need, our science has been brought to the forefront and is having a direct and beneficial impact," said Groat, the agency's director.

Jaffe said he hoped his research would lead to better preparation.

"If Sri Lanka knew they had a tsunami hazard, they would have done things differently," he said. "For example, they built their roads parallel to the coast, which makes it harder to evacuate inland. If they knew of the hazard, they would have had better planning for evacuation routes.

"They would have had a better education effort, such as telling people not to return for six hours after the first wave, because more waves come later, and the first isn't necessarily the largest. They didn't know that. Another suggestion I have is that they build monuments like the Japanese do, so people remember that the hazard of a tsunami exists decades into the future."

Staff writer Stephen C. Fehr contributed to this report.

Editor's note: Salmon recently returned from Sri Lanka, where she is tracking relief efforts.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company