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Tsunami: ‘We’ve been very lucky for a very long time’

Inside the Emergency Operations Center of Hawaii County Civil Defense in Hilo Saturday morning. County department heads kept in contact with workers in the field during the tsunami warning. Photography by Baron Sekiya | Hawaii 24/7

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Contributing Editor

By 9:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26, Hawaii County officials were gathered in the Civil Defense headquarters in Hilo, anxiously waiting for the next tsunami update.

Slightly more than 16 hours later, they were all still there, anxiously waiting to hear whether the danger truly had passed by Hawaii’s islands.

Director of Pacific Tsunami Warning Center Charles McCreery announced the good news, to cheers all around the room.

“We’re not seeing anything alarming,” McCreery said. “The wave was not any bigger than we expected. In fact, it might have been a little smaller. We’re all in agreement out here, we can end this thing for Hawaii.”

Mayor Billy Kenoi, who spent the night in the Emergency Operations Center, thanked the state and county leaders, workers, staffers and volunteers who leapt into action as soon as they heard the powerful earthquake had thundered under the ocean off Chile.

“I’m so proud of everybody,” Kenoi said. “Everybody kept their cool. The police, fire department, public works, parks, all our agencies did an incredible job. They conducted all their duties early and got it done to make sure no-one got injured or lost their property.”

A plane at the Civil Air Patrol Lyman Field Composite Squadron being prepared for the tsunami warning mission Saturday before daybreak.

The mayor also praised the Red Cross and Civil Air Patrol for their cooperation and readiness to assist.

“Some people might have a sense that this was a lot of time and effort and it wasn’t really worth it,” he said, “but it was worth every hour.”

Still, Kenoi said it was a tense night knowing that a tsunami was storming across the Pacific Ocean toward Hawaii for 10 hours.

“My stomach is still in knots. This was not a practice run,” he said. “We were prepared. You didn’t see anybody panic; you didn’t see anybody pointing fingers.”

At 12:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, when the state was put under a tsunami watch, Kenoi signed the emergency declaration that fully activated the Emergency Operations Center.

At that point, he said, officials decided to hold off on sounding the tsunami sirens. The first siren went off at 6 a.m., giving residents, hotel staff and business owners at least five hours for more than 20,000 residents and visitors to evacuate the island’s shorelines.

11:22 a.m. Emergency vehicles from downtown Hilo's Central Fire Station and spectator's cars parked out of inundation zone at Homelani Cemetery, Ponahawai Street. Photography courtesy of William Ing/Hawaii Tribune-Herald

By 10:30 a.m., the police had locked down the inundation zones around the island and were vacating the area themselves. The areas are absolutely no-go zones, Kenoi said, to protect residents and to prevent looting.

“There were no reports of people not being cooperative,” he said. “For the most part, our island residents got prepared early and stayed off the streets, got to high ground and stayed with friends, family and relatives.”

Starting shortly after midnight and continuing into the dawn hour, residents shopped for essentials and cars queued up at gas stations.

All beach parks were closed and will remain closed through Sunday. Ditto for county transfer stations. Almost all scheduled events were cancelled or postponed.

The Department of Water Supply shut down water systems in Kapoho, Pohoili, Vacationland, Kalapana, Keaukaha, Downtown Hilo, Hilo Bayfront, Puako, Kawaihae, Alii Drive and South Point Road.

The emergency shut down was a preventative measure, aimed at protecting the entire county water system in the event it was compromised somewhere along the shoreline. Service was restored shortly after the all-clear.

Hilo International Airport also was closed. That was to facilitate evacuation of Keaukaha, an oceanfront subdivision that abuts the runway.

Boats and ships moved out of the island’s three harbors and into open water. Owners of two boats in Hilo Harbor were not found, and those boats remained in the harbor.

Across the island, 17 evacuation centers were opened, including 15 staffed by Parks Department workers and two staffed by the Department of Education. Had residents and hotel guests needed to be housed overnight, the Red Cross was ready to step in and convert the evacuation centers to shelters.

McDonald’s restaurants in Hilo and Kona donated hundreds of burgers to the county workers at the evacuation centers.

The county’s entire bus fleet was mobilized to ensure everyone had transportation.

County police, public works and parks crews have conducted several tsunami drills within the last year and reacted quickly and efficiently, Kenoi said.

“We’ve been very lucky for a very long time,” he said. “And I think we need to realize that we’re not always gonna be so lucky. You don’t want your first responders to get complacent at all.”

Of the county’s 72 tsunami sirens, four or five did not function which is not uncommon due to routine maintenance schedules.

“We feel very good about our preparedness,” Kenoi said. “We feel very fortunate that our residents know what to do and stay calm.”

In the end, Kenoi said, the county received no reports of injury or property damage.

Kenoi’s Flyover

A Blackhawk helicopter flies over Hilo with Mayor Billy Kenoi aboard.

Kenoi spent 90 minutes flying over Hilo’s shoreline and said he saw six or seven surges that sucked out 30 feet of coastline.

“We saw an incredible amount of surges,” he said. “We were on edge the whole time up there. You’re up there thinking ‘what’s coming?’ It’s the uncertainty.”

Kenoi said he was prepared to see the ocean sucked out, only to rush back into shore. However, he was alarmed to see the ocean pull out, exposing Coconut Island in Hilo Bay and emptying Wailoa River.

“We were thinking ‘Oh-oh, this is it,'” he said.

Eventually, the highest wave in Hilo was estimated at about 3 feet, although surges continued to roll in and out of the bay through the afternoon.

Kawaihae recorded only a slight increase and by the time the tsunami reached Kauai, it measured about one foot.

Statewide, the PTWC reported the highest wave at 3.2 feet at Kahului, Maui.

Ghost town

Meanwhile, streets and sidewalks all over Hilo were almost completely devoid of people. Businesses and restaurants were shuttered, roads barricaded and parks silent.

At Prince Kuhio Plaza, a handful of shops were open, although mall visitors – mostly hotels guests riding out the mandatory evacuation – gathered in the food court trading stories of the day and listening to radio updates.

McDonald’s manager Craig Okui said most people were taking it in stride.

“Something like this, it can’t be helped. Anytime it’s a tsunami, it’s serious,” he said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry, for sure. Nobody can outrun a wave.”

Okui said he was grateful the county was prepared.

“We have a very well-run Civil Defense department. I’m glad they are on our side,” he said. “All the preparation in the world does help if you can come out of something like this unscathed.”

What people had to say

Gov. Linda Lingle also signed an emergency proclamation for the state, until the tsunami watch was lifted.

“We were extremely fortunate and thank goodness our state came through this without any reported incidents,” Lingle said. “Our hearts go out to those who lost their lives and those injured in yesterday’s earthquake in Chile.”

Shortly after 8 a.m. at Mauna Kea State Park in the middle of the island, Frits Paerels, of New York City, and John Miller, of Ann Arbor, Mich., were studying a map of the Big Island.

The astronomers were on their way back from a business trip to Japan.

Their hotel on the Kohala Coast was evacuated, so they decided to do some site seeing.

“We’ve been watching it since about midnight,” Paerels said. “That’s the strange thing about disasters like this. You have plenty of warning, but it’s a creeping one. This could be huge, I think.”

Paerels said his wife was on her way from New York to join him.

“She’s due to arrive in Los Angeles in an hour. She’s going to be surprised,” he said. “She’s going to go ‘Oh, geez, I hope he’s smart enough to get up out of the way.’ But she knows I am.”

Further along Highway 190, just outside Hilo town, William Stockmaster Jr. and his sister Holly Kinney were parked on the shoulder.

They admitted they were worried about their grandfather and their family business, although their parents and children were safely inland.

“We’re just kind of contemplating how big it will be. They made it pretty clear that we’re in for something today,” Stockmaster said. “It’s exciting, but really scary too.”

Stockmaster works with his father at an appliance refurbishing company in the tsunami evacuation zone.

“That’s our bread and butter,” he said. “Everything is buttoned up as tight as it can be, but the ocean is really, really powerful and we just don’t know.”

Kinney said she was concerned for friends and family, but most worried about her grandfather, who refused to leave his sea-level property.

“He’s worried that people will get in there, so he won’t leave for nothing,” Stockmaster said.

The brother and sister had considered staying at her downtown apartment, but decided to head out of town to a spot where they could be safe and still see the ocean.

“It’s kind of scary,” Kinney said. “It’s not everyday you get to see something like this close up. Hopefully, not too close up.”

After the 2 p.m. press conference at the Emergency Operations Center, Mayor Billy Kenoi was headed home.

“I’m going to hug my kids and kiss my wife,” he said. “Then I’m going to take a long nap.”

A tsunami energy map showing the power displacement from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile. Map via the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.

3 Responses to “Tsunami: ‘We’ve been very lucky for a very long time’”

  1. Amanda says:

    I wanted to say that I am glad that Hawaii is safe, but luck has nothing to do with it. The God of the Bible, who created this world, had mercy today. There were many Christians that were praying for the state of Hawaii and thank God that He answered our prayers!

  2. mark kawika says:

    Does that mean that when something bad happens, like in Haiti, your Biblical God takes a break from being merciful? Ot that when Buddhists or Muslims pray, that the God of the does not bother to listen?

  3. JohnnieCanuck says:

    There were several things which saved Hawaiians today. First was distance and second was the lack of a continental shelf which slows down the leading edge of the wave and concentrates all the energy in its shallow water. Much of the energy just passed to either side of each island. Science is all that is needed to find an explanation, even if we don’t know as much yet as we will with ongoing research.

    It would seem each of the Chileans affected was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and others less affected were in the right place. That’s pretty much what luck is, given that it is not a thing that resides in any charm or person.

    I don’t like to think that a decent god would use such a haphazard tool as a big earthquake to smite some good and not so good people and miss others. On the boston.com big picture site, I saw that quite a few looters got missed and at least one old church was damaged.

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