Monday, March 21, 2011

Scary Words

Tsunami: a cataclysm resulting from a destructive sea wave caused by an earthquake orvolcanic eruption.

Sounds scary, doesn't it? The recent tsunami in Japan unfortunately fit this definition. The one in Pacifica didn't. The media hype about the tsunami that hit the West Coast of the United States made me think about the power of scary words. Earthquake, cancer, wildfire (not just fire), tumor, hurricane. Some words carry more punch than others. The word "DANGER" followed by "Stay Back" doesn't seem to impress anyone and "Employees Only" is even less effective. But the word "tsunami" sent some people running for the hills-literally! 

Public safety officials said that it would be a really small tsunami (1 foot high), and that since it was set to come at low tide, it probably wouldn't cause water to rise higher than normal high tide. Voluntary evacuations were put into place in coastal areas of San Mateo County. Even though evacuations were not employed in San Francisco, Great Highway was closed. How did the local media capitalize on this? For one thing, I didn't hear the word "voluntary" until it was over. News of school and road closures, and evacuation centers, dominated. Most stations had local news on consistently, only giving updates on national/international news sporadically. This made keeping up with the real crisis in Japan more difficult.

I realize that some areas on the West Coast were affected more substantially. It would have been dangerous, for example, to be on a boat in Santa Cruz Harbor.

Now that the tsunami panic has passed, there is a potential danger from damage to a nuclear power plant in Japan. News reports, as well as government officials, vary widely on how serious and far-reaching the crisis is. I'm not an expert on the media, radiation, public policy or scary words, but we all teach our kids not to cry "wolf!"

For more news on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, including some miraculous survival stories, go to

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