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Engineering: Graduate students survey deadly tsunami in Peru

Matt Swensson, a civil engineering master’s student, stands on the beach at Las Cuevas, in the Camana area of Peru. The June 23 tsunami flooded a coastal plain more than a half-mile inland.

Photo by Jose Borrero

Two USC graduate students who were members of the scientific team surveying a large tsunami in Peru say the deadly event has important lessons for Californians.

Jose Borrero, a civil engineering doctoral student, and Matt Swensson, a civil engineering master’s student, were part of the International Tsunami Survey Team investigating a tsunami associated with a magnitude 8.4 earthquake that struck Peru on June 23.

“The tsunami killed more people than the earthquake. There have been 23 confirmed drownings with 62 people still missing,” said Borrero.

It could have been much worse.

Borrero said that fishermen and coastal residents living near the beach in Camana, a city with a population of 53,000 in a largely agricultural area, were well-versed in the danger they faced from tsunamis.

“When the earthquake struck, they knew to run for the hills,” Swensson said. “A lot of those killed were farm workers and house-sitters who had come from the mountains and didn’t know about tsunamis.”

Borrero said the tsunami began about 15 minutes after the earthquake when the sea rapidly withdrew as much as several hundred yards from the normal shoreline. One witness told Borrero that several youths who ran out to catch fish trapped in pools of water were warned that the sea would soon return with a vengeance.

The sea came back in as many as five surges, with the largest waves reaching as high as 20 feet during the third surge. The water flooded a coastal plain more than a half-mile inland and damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 structures, Borrero said.

“We would have had a thousand people dead if this had happened in the summer,” he said. “Camana is a full-on summertime beach place, but luckily, the town’s center is inland.”

The tsunami traveled across the Pacific and was recorded in Hawaii, Japan and New Zealand.

“People in California need to be more aware of tsunamis,” Borrero said. “If you are near the beach and feel an earthquake, you should go to higher ground immediately.”

As a graduate student, Borrero has surveyed tsunamis all over the world, including the catastrophic 1998 tsunami in Papua New Guinea that killed more than 2,000 people.

In addition to Borrero and Swensson, scientists from Northwestern University, Humboldt State University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and CICESE (the international research and teaching institution chartered by Mexico in Ensenada, Mexico) were on the survey team. The scientists worked closely with Peruvian scientists and and naval officers to conduct the survey.

For more on the Peruvian tsunami and the field survey by USC graduate students, go to http://www.usc.edu/dept/tsunamis/peru01/.

Engineering: Graduate students survey deadly tsunami in Peru

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