Tsunami Could Have Been Worse

Eels and puffer fish were among the marine critters washed onto rocks by the March 11 tsunami

Eels and puffer fish were among the marine critters washed onto rocks by the March 11 tsunami

It was nearly 13 months ago when I sat on my living room floor reflecting on a tsunami scare after an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Chile. At the time it was one of the most powerful quakes in recorded history. We braced for the worst and waited with high anxiety, knowing a similar earthquake in 1960 generated a deadly tsunami in Hilo.

Hawaii was spared on that Saturday, but that was not the case during this latest event, an even bigger earthquake.

On March 11, a massive 9.0 earthquake hit the Pacific Ocean off northeast Japan, generating a catastrophic 33-foot tsunami wave. The rolling ocean crushed everything in its path, killing thousands. We watched in agony as video poured in from Japan. The images of entire communities, homes, vehicles and boats being washed away were horrifying.

Parts of the world were immediately under a tsunami watch. In Hawaii, the watch was quickly upgraded to a tsunami warning. Models at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center showed the first wave would hit Kaua’i at about 3:07 a.m., Oahu at 3:21 a.m., Maui six minutes later at 3:27 a.m. and Hawaii Island at 3:46 a.m. Wave heights were estimated to be in the 6-foot range. Time was on our side.

Evacuations were immediately ordered for those who live in tsunami inundation zones. Hotel guests were moved to higher ground, while thousands of island residents fled to mountains and hillsides. In some areas, folks made the most of the situation. One man on the Pali Highway brought his hibachi and fired up the grill. But this was no party.

Initially, there was a mad rush to grocery stores, supermarkets and gas stations, but the frenzy did not last long. The hysteria was soon replaced by calm and orderly evacuations, including at our boat harbors. Most boat owners heeded the warnings and left when the sirens blared. Those who didn’t would pay a price.

HPD officers mobilized in Waikiki when the alert came

HPD officers mobilized in Waikiki when the alert came

For the second time in 13 months, I was assigned to cover an approaching tsunami from Waikiki Beach. Only this time my photographer Greg Lau and I couldn’t see what was coming our way. As we waited, I kept visualizing the destruction in Japan, knowing this one was a real threat to us. A tsunami was coming, we just didn’t know where, when or how big.

There were several surges at Waikiki. The one that shook me up happened minutes before 5 a.m. I watched in amazement as the ocean receded into the darkness near the Kapahulu Groin. Nearby hotels provided just enough light to see dry sand almost to the sea wall and patches of reef exposed outside Kuhio Beach.

It was uncomfortable. About 20 minutes later, someone yelled, “Here it comes!” And it did. The surge was steady and thick. We had seen enough and got out of there.

By then Maui County officials were reporting waves up to 6 feet hitting parts of the coastline, and even larger waves were washing over the seawall at Ali’i Drive in KailuaKona. Daylight provided answers. This time Hawaii was not spared. Homes were ripped off foundations in Kealakekua Bay. One even sat floating in the bay for several hours before sinking. Late Friday afternoon, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed an emergency proclamation, the first step in opening the door to federal funding for relief and aid.

Floating docks at Ke‘ehi Lagoon were torn away from their moorings

Floating docks at Ke‘ehi Lagoon were torn away from their moorings

Over the next several days more signs of the catastrophic event surfaced. Hundreds of boats in our harbors were destroyed. Dead fish and eels washed ashore across the state. Marine biologists and oceanographers believe the tsunami’s powerful surges and currents may have played a role in their deaths. Damage estimates were in the tens of millions and climbing.

But despite our heavy losses, most would agree we got lucky – again.

The death toll in Japan continues to rise and the threat of more harm and destruction is very real. While we count our blessings, let us not forget to pray for our friends in Japan. They were not spared.

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