Hawaii’s Tsunami Expert: Dr. Walter Dudley shares passion for tsunami awareness

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Emeritus Professor Walter Dudley first came to Hawaii in 1968 to study oceanography in graduate school at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. This was quickly interrupted when he was drafted into the Army. Dudley ended up being trained as a paratrooper, Army Engineer Officer, and ultimately a Counter-Intelligence Agent stationed in Germany.

Returning to graduate school after the Army, he received his PhD in Oceanography and went on to do research in France and participate in numerous oceanographic research cruises around the world. However, Hawaii called, and he ultimately settled on the Big Island starting the Marine Science program at University of Hawaii at Hilo.

“I’m a hands-on type of person, so I had students carry out lots field work, everything from tagging sea turtles, to studying beaches, to monitoring coral reefs, to measuring ocean currents and studying sewage pollution,” Dudley says. “I loved working around the sea, and the students loved being outside the classroom and became motivated to study harder in class.”

Dudley also focused on studying tsunamis and improving tsunami preparedness through public education and better evacuation procedures. In 1994, he and tsunami survivor, Jeanne Johnston, founded the Pacific Tsunami Museum where he currently serves as Chair of the Scientific Advisory Council. He has written seven books about tsunamis, numerous papers in scientific journals, and appeared in over 30 television documentaries about tsunamis aired in a dozen different countries.

“Over the years, we have interviewed over 500 tsunami survivors of tsunamis in 1923, 1946, 1952, 1957, 1960, and 1975 in Hawaii, the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and the Maldives, and the 2009 tsunami in Samoa and American Samoa,” Dudley says. “We learned an enormous amount about tsunami preparedness and response through these interviews. Many of the survivors suffered from PTSD and told us that sharing their experience to help save other lives was cathartic.”

Dudley helps out at the tsunami museum by updating exhibits, training docents, answering questions, and promoting tsunami education and preparedness.

“We must be ready for the next tsunami event,” he adds. “The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center does an excellent job and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and County Civil Defense Agencies do the best they can with their limited resources, but we need to educate residents and visitors about the tsunami hazard and how to prepare and respond.”

Dudley hopes people take away this message: Don’t be scared, be prepared. You can learn ore about the Pacific Tsunami Museum online at tsunami.org.