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Sunday, November 23, 2014         

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Tsunami alerts can’t be ignored


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Tsunamis emanating from earthquakes far away have caused damage and deaths in Hawaii, so the casual response by some people along the coasts to Saturday night's warning is disturbing. Government and other officials seem to have done what they could to encourage people from coastal areas to seek higher ground, but too many ignored the advice.

Walking the beach made no sense. If the tsunami warning was overly precautionary, there would be no huge waves to observe. If the warning was accurate, such a stroll would have been dangerous, if not deadly. Fortunately, the waves were smaller than feared.

The earthquake along the Queen Charlotte Fault near the Haida Gwaii islands off the coast of British Columbia struck about 5 p.m. Saturday with a magnitude of 7.7, followed by 5.8- and 5.1-magnitude aftershocks. It was the first tsunami warning in Hawaii from an earthquake off Canada, but a 7.1-magnitude quake at the Aleutian Islands chain extending from Alaska produced a tsunami that flooded downtown Hilo in 1946, killing 159 people and causing more than $26 million in damage.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center at Ewa Beach issued a tsunami warning about 7:15 p.m. Saturday, a decision made after coastal tide gauges and deep-water sensors off Alaska and the West Coast showed "a good picture of the energy directed toward Hawaii," said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist at the center.

Tsunami sirens began blaring around 7:40 p.m., as hotels began moving guests to higher floors. "Tsunami refuge centers" were opened to give residents safe places to wait. Gov. Neil Abercrombie went on TV to urge people to stay away from the ocean, reminding them that police were not about to endanger themselves by chasing them down at the beach.

There were some glitches. Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi said some sirens on Hawaii island's east side failed to work initially and were not sounded until after 9 p.m. In response, the Civil Air Patrol aircraft flew over shorelines to warn people while responders blared warnings from their vehicles. An Ewa Beach evacuation center was not open before the tsunami waves arrived.

It turned out that the largest tsunami wave was less than 3 feet above the ambient sea level, and the warning was lifted before midnight. There have been no reports of damage.

"Essentially, there was no choice," Fryer told the Star-Advertiser's Jim Borg. "We had to go to a warning because we were uncertain." A lesser evaluation as an "advisory" still would have urged people to stay off the beach and out of the water. The center is considering taking a closer look at the gauges to determine if any changes should be made.

Meanwhile, the center is prepared to err on the side of safety, and no apologies are necessary. Dedicated professionals and the advent of ever-sophisticated equipment, fortunately, allow Hawaii some cushion of time to prepare for an tsunami emergency. The real challenge may be convincing the ridiculously curious from placing themselves in danger.






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