HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – A Text that Can Save Your Life

By Kelly Moran

Civil Defense and You – A Text that Can Save Your Life

If a major road or highway is closed somewhere, as it might be after an accident; or if bad weather or a natural disaster is approaching, the Hawaii County Civil Defense Mobile Alerts program can tell you almost instantly. It will send the news directly to your cell phone, as a text message.

I got the following text one Sunday in September, at 4:15 p.m.: “Police report road closure of Hwy 19 @ 44-45 MM due to traffic crash. Detour is through Ahualoa.” A little later came the update: “As of 5:30, police have reopened 1 lane to traffic. Full road reopening to follow.”

Now, I wasn’t going to be driving on Highway 19, past the 44- and 45-mile markers, that particular day. But some day, news like this is bound to come in handy.

If a service like this were merely “handy,” though, it wouldn’t be worth telling you about. But consider that, a few days later, around 8:30 a.m., Civil Defense sent a text message that there’d been an earthquake and tsunami in Samoa. That is news that everyone here has to pay attention to, because any such event in the Pacific Ocean could potentially send a tsunami to Hawaii. And indeed, Civil Defense issued a tsunami “watch” for the Islands. Ultimately, the Samoan tsunami did not threaten Hawaii, and the watch was cancelled. But a friend across the island phoned, that morning, to ask if I’d heard anything about the Samoa quake, and I was able to read him what I’d gotten from Civil Defense.

If a tsunami is ever actually approaching Hawaii, Civil Defense will issue a more serious “warning” or “alert.” And when that danger is imminent, sirens will sound all around the islands’ coastlines. (Be aware, though, that the sirens are regularly tested at 11:45 a.m. on the first Monday of each month.)

A tsunami in motion can travel as fast as a jet plane – about 500 mph. So it will take hours for a tsunami that’s generated by an earthquake elsewhere in Pacific – whether on the rim, as in Chile or Alaska, or in one of the far-flung archipelagos, such as Samoa – to arrive here. That gives you plenty of time to evacuate, if you’re in what signs all over the coastal areas of the islands call “Tsunami Inundation Zones.”

But at such a great speed of travel, the worst-case scenario is when a tsunami is generated right here, by an earthquake in Hawaii, leaving people practically no time to escape. This happened one night in 1975, when a quake beneath Mauna Loa generated a tsunami that caused a beach in Ka’u to subside. Within only a couple of minutes, the ocean surged in, swamping kids and counselors on a camping trip, and killing several. Remember: If you’re near the ocean and you feel an earthquake, drop everything and head for high ground immediately!

That's not a tsunami, just very high surf at Hilo Bay during a storm.  But the waves are high enough for the County to close the Bayfront highway - and for Civil Defense to text a warning to that effect.
That's not a tsunami, just very high surf at Hilo Bay during a storm. But the waves are high enough for the County to close the Bayfront highway - and for Civil Defense to text a warning to that effect.

One night in October, there was a small earthquake here. It didn’t have much power: we felt the shake, but nothing fell off the shelves. Fifteen minutes later, though, Hawaii County Civil Defense text’d me that it measured 4.1 on the Richter scale, that it was centered under the sea southeast of Pahala, and that no tsunami had been generated. Okay – that night, the news was not much to worry about. But it was reassuring, and it trumped the guessing-game (“Wha’d’you think? Four-point-something?”) that inevitably follows a quake.

All local telephone directories have Civil Defense pages near the front, with maps of low-lying areas highlighted for evacuation in case there’s a tsunami emergency. To be fully informed about tsunamis, I urge you to visit the unique Pacific Tsunami Museum on Kamehameha Ave. in downtown Hilo; or go to its website at

Of course, traffic and emergency notifications are not all that Civil Defense can do for you. Want to know how near you or your visiting friends can get to wherever Kilauea is erupting today? Or whether your favorite viewing spot is open or closed? You can check with the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, of course; but it’s Hawaii County Civil Defense that has a dedicated Lava Viewing Hotline. Phone 808-961-8093.

As for those emergency alerts, some – though not all – cell phone service plans charge you for incoming messages. But the folks at Hawaii County Civil Defense are not likely to send you something every day – and when they do, it might just save your life! Sign up to receive these alerts by going to:, register and filling in the form.

Believe me: you can afford it.