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No damaging waves, but lessons learned

Officials count the experience as good

By Sarah Zoellick /

LAST UPDATED: 7:59 a.m. HST, Oct 29, 2012

State and county officials haven't yet come together to discuss the details of how Saturday's tsunami warning and coastal evacuation were handled, but all agree that it went as well as it could have given the short time frame emergency responders had in which to act.

"We will learn from every one of these events that we have, and there are some small wrinkles that probably could have minor adjustments, but in fact this was done effectively, efficiently and professionally by all the people who were there in the emergency operating center," Mayor Peter Carlisle said.

Hawaii was put under a tsunami warning by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center at about 7 p.m. Saturday after a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck off the west coast of Canada near British Columbia about two hours earlier.

Emergency responders scrambled to evacuate coastal areas, and residents ran to gas stations and grocery stores to stock up on necessities.

As people waited in shelters around the state, scientists recorded the first tsunami wave at 1.6 feet high near Maka­puu at about 10:30 p.m. Kahu­lui Harbor recorded a similar-size wave about 20 minutes later. Measurements continued until Pacific Tsunami Warning Center officials downgraded the warning to an advisory at about 1 a.m. and lifted the advisory just before 4 a.m.

By 10 a.m. Sunday most Oahu beaches had reopened, and the Civil Defense teams had disbanded, a state Civil Defense spokes­man said.

Hanauma Bay remained closed through this morning because of tidal fluctuations but could reopen at noon, city officials.

Harbors officially reopened Sunday afternoon, a state Department of Land and Natural Resources spokes­woman said.

Kauai, Honolulu, Maui and Hawaii county officials all reported no tsunami-related damage, and DLNR said that state property was spared as well.

Carlisle said he thinks the state and county warning to evacuate wasn't an overreaction.

"There wasn't the slightest overreaction when you have that magnitude of an earthquake and you are aware of the fact that there are going to be tsunami waves traveling quickly across the ocean to Hawaii," he said. "This was a potentially dangerous situation and had to be treated as such."

John M. Cummings III, public information officer for the city Department of Emergency Management, said the tsunami response Saturday was unprecedented because of the short period officials had in which to react.

"Yesterday was from 0 to 100 miles an hour in a very short time," Cummings said. "It was a very challenging event trying to get everything mobilized in such a short time."

Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, said the warning was not issued immediately after the quake because he initially thought it was of magnitude 7.1 instead of 7.7 and that it occurred on or closer to land rather than in deep water.

Officials do not yet have reports or answers ready, but they have acknowledged some malfunctions with warning sirens.

Sirens in East Hawaii including Keau­kaha, Wai­akea and at least portions of Puna initially failed to work due to a "glitch," but the problem was eventually fixed, Mayor Billy Kenoi said Saturday night. Sirens were sounded successfully in the East Hawaii area at about 9:10 p.m.

Cummings said technicians on Oahu will be inspecting sirens today that residents reported were either not working or faint. He said the island has more than 180 sirens in place that are subject to hazardous conditions and prone to mechanical issues.

Shelly Kunishige, public information officer for state Civil Defense, said she received six complaints from Oahu residents reporting malfunctioning sirens, only one of which was in a tsunami evacuation zone.

She said Hawaii Civil Defense is installing two-way communication sirens on Oahu and Hawaii island that will enable officials to know immediately when a siren is not working. Currently the state and counties depend on volunteers to call in broken sirens during the monthly siren tests and have no way of knowing when one fails to sound.

The new system will be satellite- and cellular-activated instead of radio-activated, which makes it possible for state officials to back up the county if anything should go wrong with their system, Kuni­shige said. The new system is expected to be fully installed on Oahu by early next year.

Mike McCartney, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said Sunday he had not heard of any difficulties with hotel guests, and he is pleased with how the visitor industry handled the evacuation.

"I think what we see time and time again is that we have excellent leadership and excellent staff in our properties," he said. "They train for this; they know what to do. They handled the guests and it went well."

At Hilton Hawaiian Village all guests were in their rooms beginning at 10:10 p.m. Bars and restaurants were closed by 9:50 p.m.

"Everyone has been extremely cooperative," Jerry Gibson, area vice president of Hilton Hawaii and managing director of HHV, said Saturday night.

McCartney said HTA opened up a command center in the Hawai‘i Convention Center with all of its tourism industry partners to help visitors and communicate with neighbor island hotels and authorities.

"The aloha spirit was alive and well," he said. "We just appreciated everyone's patience, especially our visitors going through this. But in the end it was very important to be safe, and Hawaii really prides itself on that — being prepared and being safe."

Kunishige said state Civil Defense's emergency response protocols have remained relatively unchanged since the Japa­nese tsunami in 2011.

The agency did, however, update its call roster recently to improve interagency communication, Kuni­shige said, explaining that the phone tree among emergency workers was redrawn to branch out instead of run linearly, and instant text-message notifications for staff were used as a backup.

State and county officials also worked to improve their communication since the Japa­nese tsunami to prevent another situation in which boaters prematurely return to the harbors when the all-clear is given.

This time around, the words "all clear" were avoided entirely, and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center instead downgraded the warning to an advisory, which lets people know they can return to their homes but still cautions them to stay out of the water, Kuni­shige said.

In addition, state and county officials made greater use of social media compared with last year. Kuni­shige said the state agency sent out sporadic tweets during the Japa­nese tsunami, but it assigned a staff member Saturday to send out tweets every 10 minutes.

Carlisle agreed that communication Saturday among state and county entities was on point.

"It was a Saturday night when everybody is out and about, and despite that fact we were able to clear the streets and the thoroughfares rapidly and well," he said.

Keoni Wagner, vice president of public affairs for Hawaiian Airlines, said air travel was relatively unaffected by the evacuations. A Maui-bound flight slated to leave Hono­lulu at 10 p.m. and a flight that was to leave Maui for Hono­lulu later Saturday evening were canceled, he said. Sixty-seven Maui-bound passengers stayed in Hono­lulu as a result of the cancellation and were to fly to Maui on Sunday morning.

During the tsunami warning, a Hale­iwa man was killed in a crash on Wili­kina Drive, which was closed.

Police said a speeding vehicle crashed into a Jeep among vehicles parked and waiting for North Shore roads to reopen just south of Kau­kona­hua Road. The force of the crash sent the Jeep into the vehicle in front of it; that vehicle also hit another parked vehicle.

The Jeep burst into flames at 12:19 a.m. Sunday, a witness said. That vehicle's driver was killed, police said.

A Waialua man in the speeding vehicle and a 43-year-old Hale­iwa woman in the vehicle in front of the Jeep went to the hospital in serious condition, officials said. A Wai­alua man and three others in the fourth vehicle — a man and two women — went to a hospital in good condition, police said.

The driver of the speeding vehicle was arrested at the hospital Sunday for investigation of negligent homicide.

A band fundraiser concert at Kapolei High School was canceled as a result of the evacuations, and hundreds of dollars were lost because food was given away instead of sold, one parent said.

Cummings said that even though the tsunami wave was not as big as predicted, there was no false alarm.

"We may have only got a foot wave or a 2-foot wave, but we got a tsunami wave," he said

Cummings said people should keep in mind that disaster can strike the islands at any time, and they should have a plan in place for when it does. "Everyone has to be prepared, have a family disaster plan and maintain a well-stocked disaster supplies kit so you don't have to go down to the store and buy all this stuff while the sirens are going off," he said. "And unfortunately that's what a lot of folks did."


Star-Advertiser reporters Kevin Dayton, Craig Gima and Allison Schaefers contributed to this report.

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