written by Fern:
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As I write this on Wednesday, March 3, hundreds of people in Chile are scurrying to higher ground as
strong aftershocks are rocking the disaster-weary residents of Concepcion. A tsunami warning has been issued for the quake-hit Chilean
coast and troops are evacuating people up the hillsides amid the roar of wailing sirens. The new 6.0 magnitude aftershocks come on
the heels of the devastating 8.8 earthquake of four days ago; it toppled numerous structures and caused “monster waves” that ravaged
coastal towns and villages. Tragically, the death toll keeps rising.
Watching this continuing drama unfold,
I wonder if this monumental natural disaster is really over. As we learned last Saturday, earthquakes in Chile can have far reaching
effects—the entire Pacific Rim was put on tsunami alert. I heard yesterday that scientists claim the Earth has been jolted off its
axis by one of the strongest tremblors ever.
A phone call woke us up at 2 a.m. that day when Hawaii Electric Light
Company called my husband John to immediately report to work “to transport trucks to higher ground because of an approaching tsunami.”
I hit my bedside TV remote to watch local news coverage of the earthquake and impending tsunami warning that would be issued at 6
a.m. A map on the screen pinpointed the location of the earthquake with a big star while vibrating curves depicted menacing waves
emanating into the Pacific.
As those first sirens jolted people from their beds statewide, TV reporters announced
that Twitter “tweets” from French Polynesia declared the arriving waves were “small.”
Nevertheless, islanders from
Hanalei to Hilo were already in line at gas stations and police were directing residents from coastal inundation zones. Boats docked
in small harbors moved out to sea. Costco opened its doors to non-members needing supplies for a suggested “seven-day period” and
road closure times in and out of low-lying areas were issued. Visitors in Waikiki were told to move above the third floor of their
hotels. Here on the Big Island, each resort implemented appropriate evacuation plans—the Hilton Waikoloa Village moved a whopping
1500 overnighters a half-mile inland via buses.
From my home perched at a safe, 1800-foot elevation, I flicked through
TV channels, catching compelling coverage on all the local stations; some of their feeds were simultaneously broadcast on CNN and
MSNBC. The tsumani was predicted to hit Hilo around 11:05 a.m. and then progress up the island chain, reaching Kauai at 11:42 a.m.
8:30 a.m., Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle appeared on the tube from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTSC) via Skye. She reminded
us that we were to obey emergency personnel, stay off the roads unless necessary and avoid using the phone. Next, she said Hilo on
the Big Isle would be hardest hit and she was in constant connection with our mayor, Billy Kenoi. She said after the wave hits, if
there is damage, she has a helicopter on standby to come assess the scenario. “I can be there in an hour,” she assured viewers.
shared her current dilemma was deciding whether or not to turn off the water system in Honolulu and Maui as infiltration of salt water
into the pumps could permanently damage them. On the other hand, flicking the switch could result in raw sewage coming up from the
Obeying orders to stay off the phone, I got on facebook and answered concerns and well wishes from friends
across the U.S. I also learned firsthand about Hilo’s evacuations. There were numerous posts about what people were doing and a colleague
conveniently shared how you could see real-time dialogue and live-stream video at ustream.tv/channel/hitsunami.
was reminded how the Hilo community and east side of the Big Isle has suffered repeated tragedy due to several tsunamis: in 1946,
1960 and 1975. In fact, the 1960 tsunami, which killed 61 people and towered at 35 feet, was generated from an 8.5 earthquake also
Weather guru Guy Hagi of TV’s HawaiiNewsNow soon divulged timely and important facts: the devastating 1960
tsunami from Chile was actually generated by a larger, 9.5 magnitude quake, though it was listed as 8.5 on the then-used Richter scale.
He also said a six-foot wave had been reported at the Marquesas Islands and a wave that size can pick up cars and debris. A six- to
nine-foot wave was predicted to hit Hilo; however, it was shared that several wave-measuring buoys around Hawaii weren’t working.
The Hilo International Airport was closed.
Knowing what tsunamis can do—and that one, of unknown size, is traveling
as fast as a jet toward Hawaii—is scary. It’s not only the possibility of physical destruction, but also the resulting fallout. For
example, we know that without the use of our harbors, we can’t get necessary food and essentials shipped in or out of our island state.
ETA of 11:05 a.m. came and went. Ed Teixeira of the Hawaii State Civil Defense said the earthquake was so large, it had created a
fissure in the Earth and so the wave was going to be harder to predict. At 11:18, shoreline bystanders observed a visible retreating
of the ocean in Hilo—the first sign of an approaching seismic wave. As if by magic, footage via a Hilo Skycam showed water moving
out to sea. Before our eyes, the tide began flowing out to the ocean and revealed previously underwater shoreline, reef and rocks.
The remaining water quickly turned brown. Within a mere minute, I saw the same Hilo Bayfront quickly filling up with water and with
rapt attention, held my breath for the big one…
It never came. The tide continued to ebb and flow, bringing in several,
three-foot surges. At 12:30 p.m., a geophysicist from the PTWC announced “we had dodged the bullet,” but said with the ocean still
changing, the tsunami warning was not lifted. “I have guarded optimism,” he noted.
In the meantime, a new facebook
page had 5,088 fans, “Living through the Hawaii Tsunami of 2010.” Posts told of how people were hanging out on higher ground to wait
for the all-clear. I read how some were disappointed a tsunami never came, while others were relieved. There were complaints about
“the day’s plans ruined,” or income lost due to “closing up shop.” One resident said it was “basically a party day.”
me, Living through the Hawaii Tsunami of 2010 reminds me there are things we can’t control. As far as tsunamis go, we were not only
lucky this time, but also had 15 hours to prepare. That won’t always be the scenario.
From Alaska, a seismic wave
takes about five hours to get here; in 1946, a 55-foot tsunami from the Aleutian Islands killed 170 people. And a locally generated
tsunami from a Hawaii earthquake can strike without warning and is potentially the most damaging.
There have been
50 tsunamis reported in Hawaii since the 1800s and there will surely be more. It’s not if, but when.
You can find these three last paragraphs above, along with other entries, as a post on facebook’s “Living through the Hawaii Tsunami
of 2010,“ a fan page of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The page was created “to spread the word, and to remember
to always be prepared for the unexpected.”