Oregon State University

Confluence: Oregon Tsunami Signs Go International

Oergon's iconic tsunami sign is being used around the globe

Winter 2012 | Vol. 1, Issue 1

Iconic signs grew out of Oregon Sea Grant effort

All along Oregon’s coast are blue and white signs depicting a series of waves and a stick figure running uphill that alert residents and visitors to the fact that they are in a tsunami-vulnerable area. These tsunami warning signs, which were created as part of an Oregon Sea Grant effort, have spread not only to other U.S. states and territories, but also to other countries. 

"This was just a small part of our work on tsunami hazard education, but it’s certainly gratifying how it’s caught on," says Jim Good, professor emeritus at Oregon State University and former coastal resources specialist with Oregon Sea Grant Extension. "The signs have been a tremendous educational tool."

Good worked with staff members from the Oregon Coastal Management Program and state departments of Geology and Mineral Industries and Transportation to develop the signs. Tom Weeks, graphic design specialist with the university’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Extension, designed the sign’s icon.

"I went to the drawing board—literally—making pencil sketches and developing it on the computer," Weeks says. The gender-neutral figure is "readily recognized as a person in action."

"We wanted to have a graphical depiction of the response a person should have in the event of a strong earthquake," Good explains. Run inland or to high ground as fast as possible.

Early resistance melts as awareness grows

Good notes that there was "a lot of resistance at first from towns on the coast about using the signs because they were afraid they would scare tourists away... They’re everywhere now."

Sea Grant professor emeritus Jim GoodIn addition to the Oregon coast, the signs have been adopted in the states of Hawaii, California, Washington, and Alaska, as well as the territory of Puerto Rico.

Usage of the graphic icon spread to Thailand, Japan, Chile, and Mexico after the December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

"As tragic as it was, the Indian Ocean tsunami woke people up here and around the world," Good says. "It was a teachable moment for tsunami evacuation planning."

Neither Good nor Weeks is sure how the graphic—which is in the public domain—has spread to international shores, but Good believes it may have started with an Oregon State University graduate student who went to Thailand to serve on a tsunami damage assessment team and took copies of the signs with her.

The signs have been successful, Good says, because they have a "simple clear message that is tied to the potential for real natural disasters."

"When I was creating it," Weeks says, "I had no idea it was going to expand the way it did. What you think is an inconsequential action can lead to the greatest change. This was a simple project that ballooned."

He adds, "I’m just hoping that it helps somebody down the road."

—Reprinted from NOAA's “Coastal Services,” July/August 2008

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