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Couple survives tsunami atop roof on far-flung atoll

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    Jim and Cindy Waddington huddled atop this house on Kure while waiting for waves from the tsunami.

On the eve of the March 11 tsunami, Jim and Cindy Waddington had nowhere to run on Kure, a tiny coral atoll where high ground is nine feet above sea level.

So the Makiki couple, habitat management volunteers for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, donned life jackets and wet suits, and huddled atop the roof of an 11-foot-high house, bracing for the waves. With them were two state employees and a biologist who studies monk seals.

“There was no real panic or people freaking out,” said Jim Waddington, 57. “I just couldn’t believe it could come and sweep over us.”

He added, “If I had seen the footage of what happened in Japan, I might have been a little more scared,” he said.

Still, he took the threat seriously.

“All indications were it was not going to be a little 2-inch thing,” he said. “It was going to be for real.”

He knew that Kure, at the northwesternmost tip of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, 56 miles northwest of Midway, likely was the first place in the archipelago to experience the tsunami.

The group was prepared, tethering an inflatable boat and a kayak to the roof. It held a 5-gallon bucket of food, 10 gallons of water and a 4-foot pallet tub of emergency supplies. They also had a generator to operate a computer for keeping in contact with outside world.

It wasn’t until the couple started reading their emails from home that they began to worry.

“One of the most worrisome things is when people start emailing like they may never talk to you again,” he said.

One friend wrote, “Oh, God. This looks real. Take cover.”

Waddington said, “Others said, ‘I’m thinking about you. I love you.’ That was a little chilling.”

The night was calm, with temperatures in the 50s but humid, said Cindy Waddington, 60.

With no lights but their flashlights, they strained to listen for the arrival of the waves.

“We heard the dull roar of the water, then it settled down, first on the west side, then the east side,” she recalled. “It would seem to alternate. The monk seal biologist said his heart was pounding when he heard the crackling vegetation.

“After a while we just settled down, and we just all lay down and went to sleep,” she said.

In the morning the residents surveyed the island and found the wave had come up through 20-foot-tall sand dunes and traveled 300 feet inland, just 400 feet shy of the house on which they had been perched.

“The devastation was limited to the coastline and a little bit inland,” Jim Waddington said. “A lot of chicks had washed out to sea.”

Storage containers had been tossed around like building blocks. The water had inundated the biologist’s weather station, a heavy-duty tent.

But it was nothing compared with the devastation on Midway, where the couple went after they were evacuated, March 16, a week before their scheduled seven-month stay was to have ended.

“It swept over 60 percent of the island, wiped out tens of thousands of birds,” said Jim Waddington. “We spent one morning gathering chick carcasses (Laysan and black-footed albatrosses) with pitchforks.”

The Waddingtons, who were on Laysan Atoll for last year’s tsunami, say they accept the risk of natural disasters on an isolated island.

Kure has no usable runway and ships take days to arrive. The Waddingtons had to make sure they were healthy before committing to the seven-month stay, knowing there was no immediate access to medical help and that any evacuation is subject to sea conditions.

“We were very thankful, very fortunate that we dodged another bullet,” Cindy Waddington said.

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