HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
We Were Prepared – and Lucky!
On the morning of a calm sunny Saturday, the 27th of February, tsunami alert sirens all around the island went off. An earthquake in Chile, the night before, had sent shock-waves through the Pacific, and the Big Island got ready to deal with its consequences.
Hilo was famously socked twice in the 20th century by the force of a tsunami – more than twice, actually, but hit really hard in 1946 and 1960. The tsunami in ’60 had come from an earthquake in (you guessed it) Chile, which at 9.5 was the largest ever recorded. This latest one, at 8.8, was only(!) the fifth-largest.
Here in Hawaii, we pay attention to tsunami alerts. Last September, a tsunami slammed into American Samoa. In December of 2004, a tsunami devastated several countries on the Indian Ocean.
The Pacific has a network of buoys across its expanse and along all of its coasts, linked by radio data transmission. (The Indian Ocean does not have such a network, so the 2004 tsunami there could not be detected and warned against until it was too late.)
The Pacific sensors picked up oceanic disturbances and local rises in sea-level almost immediately after the Chilean quake. As soon as that news reached our Civil Defense units, on Friday night (Hawaii time), they issued their warnings of a potential tsunami. Ocean waves generated by earthquakes travel about as fast as a jetliner, some 400-500 miles per hour; so Civil Defense calculated that they would reach Hawaii around 11 a.m. Saturday morning.
The first pages of the telephone directories in Hawaii have maps of potential tsunami inundation zones on every island. There’s even more information online, as well as news about this latest tsunami and those of the past. It should come as no surprise that Hilo is home to a museum about tsunamis: the Pacific Tsunami Museum (www.tsunami.org/index.html#news), which I mentioned last November, in urging you to sign up for local Civil Defense alerts via cellphone text.
The United Nations, through UNESCO, operates the International Tsunami Information Center (http://ioc3.unesco.org/itic/), and both websites have links to additional sources of news and background information.
So, let me tell you: We were ready! We were also lucky.
With so much advance notice, many boat-owners sailed out to sea, to ride it out. Retail shopkeepers had time to move vulnerable inventory uphill. Hilo Airport, which is inside the “tsunami indundation zone,” was closed to traffic. Mail delivery was suspended. Hotels shifted people upstairs. (All of Hawaii’s coastal hotels, by the way, are built on sturdy piers; their lobbies have tall ceilings and no load-bearing walls, so a tsunami can surge through without undermining the structure.)
That morning, as luck would have it, there was a minus tide. I watched Hilo Bay through binauculars, from the Davidson’s oceanfront home on Paukaa Drive, and the only effect that I saw was some waves cresting over the breakwater in the harbor. Frankly, I’ve seen higher swells make bigger waves in a storm; but those were blue-green, with whitecaps, and had been generated by strong winds. The waves on February 27 had been generated under the sea: they were brown from the mud (and whatever else) that they’d swept up from the Big Island’s underwater landmass.
And that was about it for the tsunami of Feb. 27, 2010. In the end, no damage was recorded anywhere in Hawaii. But it could have been a catastrophe. And this little blog would have been a lot different.