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In the clear

Through preparation and luck, the islands escape nature's forces with minimal damage

By Mike Gordon

LAST UPDATED: 9:26 a.m. HST, Mar 12, 2011

It rushed toward shore under cover of darkness, a force of nature that had people in Hawaii dreading what it might do after seeing the damage 3,800 miles to the west in Japan.

But for all its destructive potential, the tsunami that swept through the state early yesterday largely spared island residents. No one was killed or injured, and the damage to property paled in comparison with entire Japanese towns and villages being swept away.

A Hawaii disaster official's initial damage estimate for state property was at least $3 million. Damage to private properties is still being assessed.

The tsunami was generated by a massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake near the east coast of Honshu, Japan. That prompted officials at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach to issue a tsunami warning at 9:30 p.m. Thursday. About an hour later, Hawaii Civil Defense ordered residents in tsunami inundation zones to evacuate.

Officials warned that potentially destructive waves would hit here as early as 3 a.m., starting with Kauai and working their way south. Chip McCreery, director of the warning center, cautioned that tsunamis and the damage they inflict can be hard to predict, in part because they are such long waves that can easily wrap around the islands.

"There are some places that will be affected more than other places," McCreery said Thursday night as many residents sought higher ground. "From our history, we've had bigger impacts in Hilo, Kahului and Haleiwa, and our models bear that out."

While most places emerged unscathed, the tsunami caused significant damage at the Keehi Lagoon marina and along the Kona Coast.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie issued an emergency proclamation yesterday allowing the state to seek federal money for recovery efforts.

"The Obama administration will help us. There's no question about that," Abercrombie said at a news conference.

Ed Teixeira, vice director of state Civil Defense, said the initial damage estimate to state land and facilities is at least $3 million.

"We think it's prudent to initiate an emergency proclamation so that we have at least the initial resources to go into and begin to recover from a tsunami," Teixeira said.

The tsunami hit Hawaii island's Kona Coast the hardest. County civil defense officials counted 18 homes and apartments that were destroyed or suffered major damage, said spokesman Quince Mento. Another 20 enterprises, from restaurants to resorts, also suffered major damage.

Businesses in Kona were flooded — the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel got a foot of water in the lobby — and a home was swept into Kealakekua Bay, Mento said.

At Napoopoo the largest of the surges — 11 feet — reached at least 100 feet inland, said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist at the warning center.

On Oahu about 200 boats at Keehi Small Boat Harbor near Sand Island were damaged or left adrift after powerful surges pulled them from their moorings, according to a U.S. Coast Guard assessment.

"Some are pushed up on other vessels," said Lt. Gene Maestas, a Coast Guard spokesman. "It's a variety of damage."

In some cases, docks broke free with the boats still attached, he said. Many of the boats floated unrestrained in the lagoon, colliding with each other and, in one instance, slamming into the Sand Island Bridge.

Surges continued at Keehi for nearly three hours, creating moaning and cracking sounds as the boats rubbed against each other.

At Haleiwa Harbor no boats were damaged, but piers were destroyed.

And on Maui at Maalaea Harbor, two vessels sank and a third overturned. An initial 6-foot surge was detected in Kahului Harbor, and a second was more than 7 feet high.

The tsunami came just more than a year after residents braced for a tsunami generated by an 8.8-magnitude quake in Chile. When it arrived, it barely registered a ripple.

The lack of impact in February 2010 was on the minds of some waiting in lines to buy gas and shopping for emergency provisions.

It was part of a long night for many.

"It is hard to take this seriously," said Danette Keola as she sat in her VW microbus in a line of cars at the Hawaii Kai Chevron station. "The last one we thought would hit, and nothing happened."

Adrien Valentin, a 74-year-old Hawaii Kai resident, wasn't taking chances.

"We're cautiously optimistic," she said as she and her husband loaded a case of water into their car outside the Hawaii Kai Foodland. "I've been through this many times in the last 50 years, but you always want to be prepared."

Even if tsunamis are hard to predict, the choice of what to do is not, authorities said.

"If we chose not to evacuate and we take damage and injuries and casualties, we are in for a lot of trouble," said John Cummings, Oahu Civil Defense spokesman. "If we order an evacuation and we have a nondestructive tsunami and we sounded the sirens, we will still have people who are upset. But we have to err on the side of public safety."

Mayor Peter Carlisle stressed the decision to evacuate was not a false alarm.

"Our residents and visitors reacted admirably," Carlisle said. "They understood the dangers of a tsunami and evacuated our shorelines. On behalf of the City and County of Honolulu, I want to thank everyone for taking this threat seriously."

At the tsunami warning center, Fryer defended the handling of the disaster. "This evacuation was necessary," he said. "This was the right thing to do."

Even as most residents returned to their daily routines yesterday, an echo of the tsunami lingered off Waikiki Beach. Several times an hour, the ocean would recede dramatically, exposing rocks on the sea floor. Then a strong wave would surge in, catching some swimmers by surprise.

City lifeguards made 25 rescues yesterday and issued another 7,500 warnings and other preventive actions, city Ocean Safety operations chief Jim Howe said in a statement.

"Although the big effects of the tsunami were over by midday, the ocean is continuing to surge as the smaller waves come through the islands and we get the return waves bouncing back at us from Oregon, California and Mexico," Howe said.

This is expected to continue through tomorrow, he said.

Star-Advertiser reporter B.J. Reyes contributed to this report.

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