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Tourists, residents in Waikiki were evacuated to upper floors

By Star-Advertiser Staff

LAST UPDATED: 5:40 a.m. HST, Mar 11, 2011

The scene in Waikiki in the hours after the tsunami warning ranged from calm to chaotic as hotels along the beach made plans to evacuate guests from lower levels to top floors. 

Mike McCartney, president and chief executive officer of the Hawaii Tourism Association, said hotels across the state are telling guest to move to higher floors.

"We are implementing vertical evacuation," McCartney said.

"We are in touch with all hotels and they have an evacuation process in order," McCartney said.

Tourism officials say that Waikiki is nearly full as hotels prepared for the Honolulu Festival.

Momi Akimseu, Hawaii Tourism Authority communications manager, said this morning that Waikiki is essentially full. Almost all of Waikiki is within the tsunami evacuation zone.

"We have 75 to 80 percent occupancy and strong visitor arrivals from Japanese, Akimseu  said.

The tourism industry has set up a command center at the Hawaii Convention Center, with other officials at the Hawaii Civil Defense Center at Diamond Head.

She said that hotels were moving guests to the higher floors in what is called a "vertical evacuation."

Low-lying hotels partnered with nearby higher hotels that could handle more visitors.

"Hotels are making arrangements to provide safe havens for all guests," Akimseu said.

   The sun deck at the Waikiki Grand Hotel where guests gathered to seek safety during last year's tsunami scare was still empty at midnight.

   "It's totally vacant," said resident manager Don Pierce, who was directing guests to seek higher ground.

   The property, which is just 600 feet from the ocean, is in Waikiki's tsunami zone, he said. The property's generator is below sea level, Pierce said.

   In the lobby, one guest waited in vain for friends and family members to come in from the airport.  

  The sound of news stations and loud boisterous voices masked uncertainty. Passengers from passing cars on Kapahulu Avenue yelled, "Move to higher ground." Police sirens and emergency warnings urged visitors to move above the fifth floors.

   "We think we're safe. We'll be alright," said James Carso, a visitor from Phoenix who arrived in Waikiki on Monday night.

   But just in case, Carso and his traveling companions Mike Kanuk of Santa Cruz, Calif., and Mike Browne of San Francisco were packing up.

   "It's my first tsunami warning," said Kanuk, who happened to be celebrating his birthday. "I feel pretty confident that this building will stand, but it looks pretty serious."

 Pierce urged every visitor that he saw to prepare for possible impact. 

 "I'm worried about the generator," he said. "Fill the tubs with water. If a tsunami hits and you don't have water it could be days.  The sad thing is that if you don't drown out there, you could die of thirst inside."

 At apartment buildings and hotels along Kaimana Beach, several people were evacuating well past 1 a.m.

 Stein Metzger, who lives on the first floor of an apartment building on the beach, was packing up his car and planned to head to a relative's house in Manoa with his wife and 9-month-old.

 The family put food and water in their car, along with household items, important papers — even old tax documents.

 At the 64-unit Tropic Seas, residents started evacuating shortly after the tsunami watch turned into a warning. Resident manager Carl Cordes stayed behind, though, to watch the building. He planned to head up to the fifth floor to wait for the waves.

 He said he wasn't nervous, but added the threat this time was a "little more disconcerting."

 At the nearby Lotus Hotel, general manager Ward Almeida said guests on lower floors were moved to higher ones and visitors were warned not to venture outside.

"Our guests have been pretty calm about everything," he said.

As the waves neared, Almeida planned to secure items in the lobby, shut down the front desk — and prepare for the worst. 

"We're just playing it by ear," he said.

Don Persons and his wife, of Gold Coast Real Estate, were frantically packing up their important files and computers from their first floor business on Kaimana Beach.

The couple also live on the water in Waikiki so they planned to evacuate to higher ground in their car, with their business equipment safe and sound with them.

Don Persons said he was a little more worried about the waves this time than in years' past.

"I think there's more of a chance it will happen," he said.

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