What You Should Know About Tsunamis

Tsunamis are powerful ocean waves produced by a major oceanic landslide or earthquake beneath the ocean floor. Tsunamis can be very dangerous, but they rarely come ashore and cause extensive loss of life. Tsunamis can occur at any time of the year, day or night. They may take only a few minutes to travel to the shore or—when produced far out in the ocean—a tsunami may take several hours to reach land.

Tsunamis strike with little or no warning and can cause massive loss of life or injury and significant destruction to property and infrastructure. Survivors may face extensive post-disaster adversities—medical, economic, and psychological—disrupting daily routines and expectations for the future. While it is possible that a tsunami could strike anywhere along the entire coastline of the U.S., the most damaging tsunamis have hit the coasts of Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California.

The National Disaster Education Coalition has a section on tsunamis in its publication, Talking about Disasters (PDF).


Additional Information

To see other helpful materials on tsunamis, click on the Readiness, Response, and Recovery tabs at the top of the page.


Readiness: Before a Tsunami

The International Tsunami Warning System monitors ocean earthquakes and wave activity. The system issues warnings to officials who then can initiate appropriate evacuations. The United States has two tsunami warning centers: the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Alaska and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, which provide both national and international warnings for tsunamis across the Pacific Ocean.

Unlike hurricanes, which are tracked for weeks before reaching land, tsunamis can arrive suddenly. Because tsunamis cannot be predicted, families who live near the coast may have little chance to prepare and evacuate safely in the event of a tsunami. What families can do, however, as with any natural disaster, is to learn about the risk of a tsunami and its potential impact to the neighborhood; have emergency provisions; and develop a Family Preparedness Plan. For parents, preparedness means (1) talking to children about a possible disaster, and (2) taking the steps listed below to plan for such an occurrence. Practicing evacuations will help ensure that all family members are prepared in the event of a tsunami.

  • Give children information about tsunamis in simple, clear terms.
  • Develop a Family Preparedness Plan (PDF) so that all family members will know what to do in case of a tsunami or other disaster. [Also available in Armenian, Korean, Russian, Spanish , and Vietnamese.]
  • Have a plan for your pets. Most emergency shelters cannot take in animals.
  • Make and carry a Family Preparedness Wallet Card (PDF) . [Also available in Armenian, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.]
  • Create a Family Evacuation Plan including a location at which you will meet later and an out-of-state telephone contact.
  • Practice your Family Evacuation Plan, so that if instructed to do so, you can evacuate quickly and safely.
  • Assemble an Emergency Supply Kit in a large backpack or duffel bag. Include games, a deck of cards, or other small playthings for children.



Response: During a Tsunami

  • If you live in a Pacific coastal area and you feel a strong earthquake:
    • Go on the Internet, turn on your radio, or watch your television to learn if there is a tsunami warning.
  • If you are at the ocean and you see a rise or fall in the normal depth of coastal water:
    • Move inland to higher ground as quickly as possible. Do not wait and watch. Remember that even a modest wave could be followed by a larger one.
    • Walk inland at least ¼ mile. If that is not possible, go to an upper floor of a high-rise building such as a hotel.
  • If there is a tsunami warning:
    • Explain the situation to your children and remind them of your Family Preparedness Plan.
    • Review all evacuation sites with your children and all household members.
    • Prepare for immediate evacuation. You may have only minutes.
      • Wear protective clothing and sturdy shoes.
      • Unplug appliances, if there is time.
      • Secure doors and windows.
      • Let others know where you are going, or post a note inside your door.
      • Turn off gas, propane, electricity, and water, if told to do so.
  • When advised to do so, evacuate to higher ground.
  • Do not go to the shoreline to watch. Prohibit teens from doing so either!
  • If driving and your car stalls in rising water, abandon the car quickly and climb to higher ground.
  • Do not walk through flowing water that is more than ankle deep.
  • Stay away until authorities announce it is safe to return.
  • Once in a safe location, give children a small snack or juice and a toy from the Emergency Supply Kit to help reassure them that you will meet their needs.
  • Shield children as much as possible from viewing severe injuries and damage.
  • If possible and appropriate, let children help in age-appropriate ways in order to decrease their feelings of helplessness, distract them from their worries, and increase their ability to cope.
  • Do not underestimate or dismiss the worry that children will feel if they need to abandon pets or special toys.
  • Keep pets on leashes or in crates/cages to prevent them from running away or causing injury.



Recovery: After a Tsunami

Most families will recover over time, particularly with the support of family, friends, and organizations. The length of recovery will depend in part upon how frightening the tsunami was, whether evacuation from home was necessary, and the extent of the loss and damage to the home and the community. Some families will be able to return to their normal routines rather quickly, while others will have to contend with repairing damage to their home and possessions, finding medical care, and facing financial hardship. Some families will have lost a loved one or a pet. Others will need to deal with school closings or changes in school schedules.

Children's functioning and recovery will be influenced by how their parents and caregivers cope during and after the tsunami. Children often turn to adults for information, comfort, and help. Children do best when parents and teachers remain (or at least appear) calm, answer children's questions honestly, and respond as best they can to requests.

 Page Contents:

NCTSN Resources

Psychological First Aid 
     >En Español [Primeros Auxilios Psicológicos - Guía de Operaciones Prácticas]

Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide for Community Religious Professionals

Psychological Impact of Tsunamis (PDF)

Psychological Impact of Tsunamis (brief information sheet) (PDF)

Talking with Children about Tsunamis (PDF)

After the Tsunami:  Helping Young Children Heal (PDF)
     >Japanese [Healing the Young Child After a Disaster] (PDF) 

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Talking with Children about Tsunamis

When they view media coverage of destructive tsunamis, children and adolescents may have questions or fears about them. The information sheet Talking with Children about Tsunamis (PDF) gives guidance to parents and caregivers about talking with children about tsunamis, related concerns, and disaster preparedness.


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Children's Reactions

Children will react differently to a tsunami and its aftermath depending on their age, developmental level, and prior experiences. Some will withdraw, while others will have angry outbursts. Still others will become agitated or irritable. Parents should be sensitive to each child's coping style. The following are typical reactions children exhibit following a tsunami or other natural disaster:

  • Fear and worry about their safety and the safety of others, including pets
  • Fear of separation from family members
  • Clinging to parents, siblings, or teachers
  • Worry that another tsunami will come
  • Increase in activity level
  • Trouble concentrating or paying attention
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Angry outbursts or tantrums
  • Aggression toward parents, siblings, or friends
  • Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Change in school performance
  • Long-lasting focus on the tsunami, such as talking repeatedly about it or acting out the event in play
  • Increased sensitivity to sounds of crashing waves, wind, rain, or other loud noises
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of interest in usual activities, even playing with friends
  • Returning to earlier behaviors, such as baby talk, bedwetting, or tantrums
  • Increase in teens' risky behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, harming themselves, or engaging in dangerous activities
  • Panic reactions (e.g., shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat)


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What Parents Can Do to Help Their Children

Parents should spend time talking to their children, letting them know that it is okay to ask questions and to share their worries. Although it will be hard finding time, parents can use regular family mealtimes or bedtimes to talk. Issues may come up more than once and parents should remain patient and open to answering questions and clarifying the situation. They should let children know, without overwhelming them with information, what is happening in the family, with their school, and in the community. Parents should answer questions briefly and honestly and ask their children for their opinions and ideas. To help younger children feel safe and calm after talking about the tsunami, parents might read a favorite story or have a relaxing family activity.

To help children's recovery, parents should:

  • Be a role model. Try to remain calm so that you can teach your child how to handle stressful situations.
  • Monitor adult conversations. Be aware of what adults are saying about the tsunami or the damage. Children listen to adults' conversations and may misinterpret what they hear, becoming unnecessarily frightened.
  • Limit media exposure. Protect your child from too many images and descriptions of the tsunami, including those on television, on the Internet, on radio, and in the newspaper.
  • Reassure children that they are safe. You may need to repeat this frequently even after the danger has subsided. Spend extra time with them, playing games outside if possible, reading together indoors, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell them you love them.
  • Replace lost or damaged toys as soon as you are able.
  • Calm worries about their friends' safety. Even though phones may not be working, reassure your children that their friends' parents are taking care of them, just the way you are taking care of your children.
  • Tell children about community recovery. Reassure them that the government is working hard to restore electricity, phones, water, and gas. Tell them that the town or city will be removing debris, helping families find housing, and rebuilding the neighborhood.
  • Take care of your children's health. Help them get enough rest, exercise, and healthy food and water. Give them both quiet and physical activities.
  • Maintain regular daily life. In the midst of disruption and change, children feel more secure with structure and routine. As much as possible, have regular mealtimes and bedtimes.
  • Maintain expectations. Stick to your family rules about good behavior and respect for others. Continue family chores, but keep in mind that children may need more reminding than usual.
  • Encourage children to help. Children cope better and recover sooner when they help others. Give them small cleanup tasks or other ways to contribute. Afterward, provide activities unrelated to the tsunami, such as playing cards or reading.
  • Be extra patient as your children return to school. They may be more distracted and need extra help with homework for a while.
  • Give support at bedtime. Children may be more anxious when separating from parents. Spend a little more time than usual talking, cuddling, or reading. Start the bedtime routine earlier so children get the sleep they need. If younger children need to sleep with you, let them know it is a temporary plan, and that soon they will go back to sleeping in their own beds.
  • Help with boredom. The tsunami may have disrupted the family's daily activities (watching television, playing on the computer, and having friends over) or caused the suspension of extracurricular activities (sports, youth groups, dances, or classes). Help children think of alternative activities, such as board games, card games, and arts and crafts. Try to find community programs (at the library, a park program, or a local YMCA) with child-friendly activities.
  • Keep things hopeful. Even in the most difficult situation, your positive outlook on the future will help your children see good things in the world around them, helping them through challenging times.
  • Seek professional help if your child still has difficulties more than six weeks after the tsunami.


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Therapy for Children

If children are still having the reactions described above more than six weeks after the tsunami, consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. If the clinician recommends counseling, keep in mind that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has the strongest evidence for helping children recover from a disaster. Therapy for children should typically include:

  • Family involvement
  • Awareness of the child's developmental level and cultural/religious differences
  • Assessment of preexisting mental health problems, including prior traumas and loss
  • Explanation and normalization of the child's psychological reactions to the tsunami
  • Relaxation exercises and other skills to manage reactions to reminders of the tsunami
  • Problem-solving and anger-management skills as needed
  • Helping to maintain normal developmental progression
  • Increasing positive activities and rebuilding social connections


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What Parents Can Do to Help Themselves

Parents have a tendency to neglect their own needs during a crisis. To take good care of their children, parents must take good care of themselves. Here are some things for parents to keep in mind:

  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Support each other. Parents and caregivers should take time to talk together and find ways to meet each other's needs.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any life-altering decisions during this stressful posttsunami period.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo cleanup activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Their Students

  • In a school with many students affected by the tsunami, plan shorter lessons, go at a slower pace, give less homework than usual, and expect a decline in performance for a short time.
  • Identify students who had direct experience with the tsunami, particularly those who suffered losses or had to evacuate, as they are at increased risk for distress.
  • Monitor conversations you and your colleagues have about the tsunami, as you may share perceptions, feelings, and memories in ways that make children feel more anxious.
  • Encourage distressed students to meet with the school counselors.
  • Stay in touch with your students' parents and/or caregivers about academic performance and behavior.
  • Suggest that your school review its crisis and emergency plans in order to better respond to future events.
  • For those schools heavily affected by the tsunami, consider a postdisaster mental health recovery program for students and school personnel. The NCTSN provides information on these programs and other material for educators in the Resources for School Personnel section of this website.


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Themselves

Teachers play an important role in helping their students recover. Simply returning to school promotes the welfare of children and families. Teachers should not neglect themselves as they work with children, adolescents, and families. Here are some self-care suggestions for teachers:

  • Take care of yourself emotionally. You and your family may have had a stressful experience and suffered losses like those of your students. To be able to support them, you must have support yourself.
  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Communicate with others. Make sure that you and your fellow teachers schedule ongoing times to talk together and give each other support. Teachers might consider covering for each other, so that they can address important personal/family issues that arise.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo cleanup activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any life-altering decisions during this stressful, posttsunami period.
  • Take care of your own family. Even though you may be very committed to your students, you also need to spend time with and meet the needs of your own family members or friends.
  • If you have many tsunami-related responsibilities, talk with your school administrators about temporarily altering your work schedule.


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