With each new tsunami video that comes out of Japan, one can’t help but be awed by the power of nature, and aghast at the destruction and misery that’s left behind.


And as we reconsider how well- or ill-prepared U.S. buildings and infrastructure are to handle a comparable disaster, some attention should be given to systems and protocols that disseminate information about these potential threats to the public.


Because seismic activity is a routine part of life in Japan, the nation has created a sophisticated earthquake and tsunami warning system that alerts utilities and transportation system operators, plus the general public within seconds of an event.  Residents of Tokyo, more than 200 miles from the epicenter of last Friday’s quake, had a heads-up of a about a minute and a half according to a Christian Science Monitor story.


The article goes on to explain that while tsunamis travel slower than seismic waves, put of the time advantage is consumed by the need to analyze the event’s characteristics and determine whether sufficient underwater displacement occurs to warrant an alert. The NOAA-operated Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued its tsunami warning nine minutes after the earthquake occurred 80 miles off the coast Sendai City, leaving residents in the most vulnerable areas about 15 precious minutes to react.


(Compare that with Hurricane Katrina, which has been cited as the msot recent U.S. equivalent disaster. Residents and officials had several days’ warning before the storm made landfall. How well that advance warning was utilized remains a source of debate, but the time was there nonetheless.)


Watching one debris-laden tsunami gobble up buildings and property live on NHK World, it seemed remarkable to see vehicles still motoring along the yet-to-be-consumed roads. Were they trying to get away? Were they even aware of what was happening?


In the U.S., emergency warning systems are already in place for those who want to opt-in. But expanding them to the larger audiences (i.e., everyone) won’t be easy. Though  earthquake and tsunami warning systems for the seismically active West Coast states are already being developed, they still face the hurdleas is usually the case these daysof finding the millions of dollars necessary for implementation and maintenance.


Existing and planned Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) infrastructure could certainly be enlisted to help spread the word to motorists, particularly as on-board navigation and information systems in vehicles becomes more sophisticated.


Of course, there are still plenty of communications issues to consider, namely content (“Earthquake near Hawaii; Road Work at Exit 146”), and projecting the ensuing “domino effect” on traffic conditions. (Just ask any DC-area motorist about his/her commute on January 26 when a late-day snow and ice storm hit the region.)


Likewise, incomplete or inaccurate messages could well incite panic and confusionor leave drivers wondering if they should do anything or not. Who really knew what to do differently when the now-retired rainbow terror threat level system oscillated between yellow and orange?


Then there’s the matter of ensuring that that system is accurate, timely, and reliable, and building public trust through continual training and experience for both administrators and users. It wouldn’t take too many false alarms or overreactions for these systems to lose their credibility among the public.


Even if ITS infrastructure could be part of a public communications solution, such warning systems will still represent a major investment in something that might rarely be utilized, if ever.


But is the expense worthy nevertheless? Images such as these should help answer that question.