The chances of a tsunami hitting Florida very remote, officials say

Treasure Coast residents could expect a two-hour advance warning of tsunamis from a federal ocean buoy system installed because of the devastating Indonesian tsunami in 2004.

Still, the likelihood of a tsunami hitting Florida is very remote, according to state and federal officials. And Florida's tsunamis are expected to be limited in height to less than 1 foot and impact only the immediate beachfront area.

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But if one came, it would most probably come from undersea earthquakes and landslides about 1,000 miles away near Puerto Rico, said Scott Kelly, with the National Weather Service, Melbourne.

That area has the greatest history of undersea disturbances. For that reason, three of the seven deep-ocean warning buoys off the Eastern United States are in the area of Puerto Rico, he said.

The buoys are linked to sensors on the ocean floor. If they show a problem, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — through a central headquarters in Alaska — could notify emergency agencies and send alerts to radio and television.

The Treasure Coast doesn't have permanent public warning sirens, except for the 90 that Florida Power & Light Co. has set up around its power plant on Hutchinson Island in southern St. Lucie County. But those now are limited to use in nuclear emergencies, said Tom Daly, St. Lucie County Emergency Management coordinator.

The sirens oceanfront residents would hear would be those on patrol cars sent out into neighborhoods, said Daly and Dale Justice, coordinator of Indian River County Emergency Management.

That is what is done during hurricanes or wildfires.

"We have law enforcement and firefighters who are on duty all the time who could be sent out," Justice said.

Also, St. Lucie and Martin counties can alert its residents through an automated phone dialing system, said Daly and Martin County Emergency Management Director Keith Holman.

"I think we can get the word out in time," Daly said.

Still, "After you notify people, they have to get motivated and get dressed," Justice said. "They have to decide if they want get in a car and drive away. It takes time to put boots on the ground."

In Daly's estimation, the possibility of a tsunami hitting Florida "is very low."

Holman said Florida's tsunamis are expected to be limited to a half-foot in height in the beachfront area.

"That is enough to knock people off their feet and move cars on roads," he said.

On March 24, NOAA is having its annual tsunami exercise for emergency agencies in Florida. "Most people in Florida think of hurricanes, but we do have to plan for tsunamis," Daly said.

Apart from the Puerto Rico area, the other source of tsunamis in Florida could be as far out in the mid-Atlantic as the Mid Atlantic Ridge. To watch for that, NOAA has three warning buoys far out in the ocean off the middle and northeastern United States.

Kelly sees the possibility of a mid-Atlantic tsunami getting to Florida as even more remote than one from Puerto Rico. He said he couldn't estimate how high the water would be.

And earthquakes that scientists have measured around Puerto Rico are of much lower intensity than those in the Pacific region, Kelly said..

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