Tsunami Dangers: Diving into the likelihood of a tsunami hitting the SoCal coast

The season premiere of the show 9-1-1 aired on FOX on Monday at 8 pm. The drama explores the high-pressure experiences of emergency responders.

Monday’s episode centered around a tsunami hitting the Santa Monica Pier, wiping out part of our coast. In a special report, FOX 11’s Hailey Winslow took a deeper dive into what would happen if a tsunami hits Los Angeles. 

“Tsunamis are extremely rare events but they are extremely catastrophic events when they happen,” says Tsunami Expert and USC Professor Costas Synolakis. “This is why an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure.”

Synolakis travels the world immediately after tsunamis to speak to survivors. He says we need advanced evacuation planning that depicts pertinent information, like how much time first responders need to move residents out of harm’s way.

“I don’t think the person who lives here knows in case of a tsunami, what we need to do to be safe,” he says pointing out houses along the Venice Canals. “This is like paradise but in case of a tsunami, this is going to be like hell. It would be like trying to navigate through a labyrinth.”

Professor Synolakis helped create the tsunami hazard zone signs along California’s coast, as well as charts that show low-lying areas, such as Marina Del Rey and Venice Beach, that will be inundated in a killer wave.

Synolakis says if you are at the beach and feel an earthquake that lasts more than 15 seconds, immediately run inland and up to higher ground. Other tell tail signs of a tsunami include seeing the water rapidly recede or strangely hearing what sounds like a jet, freight train or heavy rain.

If possible, run at least a half a mile from the beach, Synolakis says, which along Venice Boulevard, would be the Venice Library.

“All this area will be flooded,” Synolakis says, in front of the public library. “Here it’s going to be knee-deep, cars floating, debris floating, hitting people. You cannot outrun a tsunami. You cannot get here faster than a tsunami does. So get as far and as high as you can.” 

So how much time do you have to run for your life? 

That’s what Synolakis is able to calculate in the University of Southern California laboratory, by generating a miniature tsunami in a water tank and studying how it breaks. “We try to see what exactly that they are likely to see. What is it they are likely to hear in case there’s a tsunami? Also, how much time they have to run away?”

Tsunamis that generate from far away, heed warning. 

For example, the Alaskan panhandle is home to the biggest tsunami ever recorded, 1,700 feet. A tsunami generated from a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, takes about five hours for the series of waves, at this point only about three to four feet high, to spread across the northern Pacific and hit San Francisco. An hour later, they would hit Southern California. 

California’s Tsunami Preparedness Week is the last week in March. For more information on tsunami preparedness, please visit:

Tsunamis are so deadly because they often don’t look threatening or like the giant wall of water it does on the show 9-1-1. Tsunamis often look like regular surfing wave, but right behind them is catastrophic danger. “A lot of people in tsunami attacks don’t die from drowning,” says Synolakis. “They die because they basically get pummelled. They get dragged along in the sand, which is like sandpaper. They lose skin and limbs.”

Tsunamis generated by local earthquakes are the most dangerous because they heed little to no warning, like the one that hit Japan on March 11, 2011. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered 130-foot tsunami waves. 19,000 people died in the costliest natural disaster in history that shifted the Earth on its axis.

“Once it comes on shore, that’s going to be the real worst-case scenario for Southern California. That is going to create a lot of flooding very, very quickly. Tsunamis have happened here before and they will happen again, perhaps in our lifetimes. So we need to get ready now.”

LA County emergency management partners with city, state and federal government emergency services to constantly educate, train and empower people to take ownership of their families’ disaster preparedness, especially those who live along the coast. 

Emergency workers stress the importance of having a family plan in place and an emergency survival kit for three days for each member of your family, including important medications and personal documents.

“For the past 10-plus years Los Angeles County has focused on creating a culture of disaster preparedness with the partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency and Ready.gov,” says LA county Emergency Program Manager and Spokesman Ken Kondo.

“September is National Preparedness Month. We encourage all Los Angeles County residents, businesses and whole communities to take advantage, attend and participate in these events and activities that are open to the public and media, and most importantly, free.”