A tsunami is a series of powerful ocean waves caused by a nearby displacement of ocean water, usually from an underwater earthquake, landslide, or volcanic eruption. Some people get confused about the difference between tsunami vs hurricane. A tsunami causes waves due to movement of rocks underwater, whereas a hurricane is a storm that can cause large waves due to its high winds. 

Tsunamis are capable of bringing terrible destruction when they crash onshore; most recently, the tsunami that struck the Japanese region of Tohoku in 2011 killed almost 16,000 people and caused close to $400 billion USD in damage. In 2004, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra killed more than 200,000 and sent waves as far as India and Sri Lanka (about 750 miles / 1,200 km away) and the Horn of Africa (more than 1,800 miles / 3,000 km away). In short, tsunamis are not a natural phenomenon to be taken lightly.

If a tsunami struck while you were on vacation, insurance would be able to help recoup the worst of any financial losses you might incur. A good insurance plan could provide coverage for everything from lodging to reimbursement for non-refundable trip costs to medical expenses to evacuation (if necessary). Don’t let a tsunami ruin your trip and your bank account. As you’re planning your trip, make sure to research and purchase travel insurance, travel outside the U.S. medical insurance, or visitors health insurance for U.S.—or some combination thereof—as protection against the worst-case scenario.

About Tsunamis

Around the world, about 80% of tsunamis since 1900 have been caused by earthquakes along underwater tectonic plate boundaries. They can also be caused by volcanic activity, landslides, or even a near-earth object like an asteroid or a comet colliding with the ocean. This disturbance generates a series of long waves (sometimes hundreds of miles from peak to peak) only a few feet above sea level that can move more than 500 mph (800 kph). As the waves move into shallower, coastal waters, they slow to 20-30 mph (32-48 kph) but grow in height to anywhere between 10 feet (3 meters) and, at their most extreme, 100 feet (30 meters).

Whether they strike land as a low, fast-rising flood or as a wall of water, their sheer momentum can send flood waters raging more than a mile inland, wreaking havoc on any settlements or populations in their path. When the waves withdraw, they can drag people and debris back with them out to sea, causing even more chaos, damage, and loss of life. Oftentimes, a tsunami wave that strikes is the first of several that progressively increase in height and force.

Where and When Tsunamis Occur

The Pacific Rim—that is, the perimeter of the Pacific Ocean including the western coasts of North and South America, east Asia, islands in the Pacific Ocean, Australia, and New Zealand—is home to a number of active underwater earthquake zones. Earthquakes whose epicenters fall in this region are likely to cause tsunamis and subsequent damage to nearby coastal populations. Tsunamis have also been known to strike the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, as well as the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas.

Tsunamis are equally likely at any point in time during the year. As there is no connection between climate and underwater tectonic plate movement, there is no particular kind of weather that causes (or discourages) tsunamis, and thus there isn’t really such thing as “tsunami season”. The U.S. government estimates an average of two destructive tsunamis per year in the Pacific Basin region. Larger, ocean-wide tsunamis occur roughly every 10-12 years.

How to Stay Safe

In most cases, tsunami prediction is only as accurate as earthquake prediction. Scientists can pinpoint high-frequency areas and present timetables of years or decades in which a quake is likely to occur, but accuracy doesn’t extend much further than that. If a coastal region experiences some kind of significant earthquake, it’s very possible that a tsunami isn’t far behind.

If a tsunami warning has been issued, you must first keep safe from the earthquake using the "Drop, Cover, and Hold On" method. Get as far inland and to as high a ground as you can manage. Be aware of a sudden rise or draining of ocean waves. Stay informed with emergency alerts and information. The sooner you act, the better; it's best to begin evacuating as soon as you hear any word or see any potential sign of an approaching tsunami. If you do get caught in the water or in a current, try to hold onto something that floats, like a tree branch, a door, or even a raft.

After a tsunami, it's still important to stay informed regarding shelter locations and dangerous areas. Stay out of the floodwater as much as you can, as it contains potentially dangerous debris as well as the possibility of downed power lines. Be aware that damaged buildings or bridges could still collapse. And, if you can, take pictures to document property damage for insurance purposes.

Tsunamis and Travel Insurance

Tsunamis are considered natural disasters. Insurance companies thus determine the benefits to be distributed in the event of a tsunami according to each individual plan's natural disaster coverage policy. If you're vacationing somewhere along the Pacific Rim, and you're worried about the risk of a tsunami or an associated natural disaster, there are primarily three kinds of tsunami insurance plans that offer coverage that might benefit you: travel insurance, travel to outside the U.S. medical insurance, and visitors medical insurance for USA.

Available to U.S. and non-U.S. residents alike, travel insurance covers trip-related, pre-paid, non-refundable costs like transportation fare, lodging costs, rental car fees, and so on. Travel insurance offers the benefits of trip cancellation coverage and trip interruption coverage, both of which would offer relevant services during or after a tsunami.

Trip cancellation insurance is intended to reimburse policy holders for non-refundable trip costs if they have to cancel their trip for a covered reason as listed in the certificate wording. Generally speaking, in the case of a natural disaster, travelers are protected if the disaster prevents them from following through on their intended travel plans. If a tsunami were to destroy or shut down the traveler's intended destination (like the airport or hotel), or if it causes flight cancellations for at least 24 hours, trip cancellation coverage would take effect. The traveler must also be unable to make alternate travel arrangements.

Cancel for any reason travel insurance gives you more freedom to decide for yourself whether or not to take your trip. Consider the scenario of a tsunami striking your beach destination the week before your scheduled vacation. Assume that the destination airport is still operating and the hotel is still open to visitors. However, say that most other attractions in the area have been destroyed, and that the beach is littered with debris and closed to the public. As it is still technically possible to take the vacation, you would not be covered underneath trip cancellation coverage. However, if you decide the vacation isn't worth taking, cancel for any reason travel insurance would reimburse your trip deposits. Be aware that cancel for any reason coverage is available only to U.S. residents.

Trip interruption coverage would take effect if a tsunami were to occur during the vacation itself. This type of coverage is intended to protect any of your remaining non-refundable trip costs, and depending on the specific policy, it might even pay for alternate lodging arrangements and early transportation back home. Similarly, if the tsunami were to strike at home while you're on vacation, the trip interruption provision in many insurance plans would fund the cost of an early return flight to check out the damage as soon as possible. As always, check the certificate wording of your purchased plan for any potential limits to this benefit.

Travel medical insurance is for both U.S. and non-U.S. residents taking trips that don't involve the U.S. Visitors medical insurance is intended for visitors to the U.S., mainly foreign nationals but also former U.S. residents with a permanent residence abroad but who are returning for a brief visit. Travel medical and visitors medical insurance plans both usually offer benefits like trip interruption (or interruption of trip), natural disaster evacuation, and natural disaster replacement accommodations policies.

A tsunami event would very likely qualify the policy holder for natural disaster evacuation coverage. Different plans provide different levels of coverage. To receive the benefits, policy holders must submit proof of payment to the insurance company of any activities or events from which they were displaced. They may also claim any expenses related directly or indirectly to items discussed in the particular plan's General Exclusions language.

Lastly, some visitors medical insurance plans offer natural disaster replacement accommodations. If a tsunami were to destroy or otherwise render your hotel uninhabitable, the coverage would provide a daily stipend for a limited number of days to spend on replacement accommodations.


The point of insurance is to protect against the unpredictable. Most natural disasters are unpredictable, but none strike with less warning or more fury than a tsunami. Don’t get caught unaware. In a situation where all you can do is take basic safety precautions and then hope for the best, a good insurance plan can ensure that a tsunami won’t ruin your savings account as well as your vacation. If you have any questions about natural disaster coverage in travel insurance, please feel free to call or email one of our licensed, experienced representatives.

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