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Our current problems will seem puny if a major tsunami ever hits the islands

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If two words could describe Hawaii’s reaction to Japan’s devastation, I’d say they are relief and denial.

Relief that the tsunami dealt the islands a mild swat, although I imagine people whose houses, boats and other property were damaged or destroyed would have another take on that.

Then there’s denial, a refusal to acknowledge that only the grace of nature or fate or luck has kept a massive quake or its unpredictable mate — those long, deep sea waves that can move as fast as a jet — from these shores in recent years.

Ripples from Japan, of course, will wash in to dampen the tourism economy that relies sizeably on its travelers. Broader effects that have already pricked the worldwide economy will soon sting here, too.

Though we needn’t worry, at least for now, about the toxic radiation from Japan’s crippled nuclear energy plants, the potential for less complicated damage should give pause.

Many of Honshu’s buildings and infrastructure survived the massive quake because they are designed to withstand the slips and convulsions of the earth. How well Hawaii’s structures would hold up is uncertain.

Even with seawalls thought to be strong enough to stand against a tsunami, Japan could not escape destruction from surges that arose in the quake’s aftermath.

While arguments about beach restoration, blocked view planes, high-water marks, vegetation lines and shoreline access take up much time here, these trivial disputes won’t amount to a sand berm in the face of a fierce tsunami.

Vulnerable high-rise hotels, resorts, condos, business centers, shopping malls, medical schools and housing developments both pricey and downmarket edge the coasts of almost every island, seemingly without consideration of nature’s power.

Sure, Civil Defense can issue warnings and capable science guys can predict quite well the timing and magnitude of tsunamis, hurricanes and the like.

Well-provisioned people can rest a bit easier than those who do the rush-to-Costco whirl whenever the sirens sound. Still, in the face of the kind of overwhelming forces Japan experienced, disaster preparedness ought to begin earlier.

Retrofitting buildings or sturdier initial construction butt up against cost. Cost plays out against probability and, more often than not, decision makers figure the odds don’t warrant the expense.

Rather than an extra outlay today, the choice is to roll the dice even if much more would be spent in reconstruction, much more would be forfeited in a sidelined economy, much more would be lost in livelihoods, not to mention lives.

This is not a perfect world where the best blueprints are realized.

In the real world, maybe bets should be placed on the human capacity to recover, an amazingly robust force that can match the strength of a tsunami.


Cynthia Oi can be reached at

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