Sunday | October 22, 2017
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Preparedness concerns in wake of tsunami


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Caution was replaced by calm Sunday as Big Island residents returned to much of their normal routines after a 7.7-magnitude earthquake off Canada prompted tsunami fears the night before, leading to evacuations of Hawaii County’s shores.

Impact from the far-off temblor was minimal, with 1.2-foot changes in wave height recorded in Hilo Bay on Saturday and no immediate reports of damage.

The state’s tsunami advisory, downgraded from a warning, ended at 3:58 a.m. Sunday and many county beaches appeared to be open by noon.

Fear of destructive waves had melted away with the rising sun, and swimmers, snorkelers and sunbathers alike returned to beach parks with little, if any, hesitation.

Boat owners, some who made last-minute trips to pull their craft out of danger’s path, also returned to find marinas largely as they had left them. And hotel guests, nerve shaken the night before, set off to explore the island.

Danger, this time, appeared to bypass Hawaii.

Still, questions remained as to how some tsunami warning sirens, including in Keaukaha, a 3-mile-long residential area that hugs the coast in Hilo, didn’t go off on time.

The county acknowledged the failure in a press release Sunday, referring to “technical glitches” in unspecified areas.

Reached by phone, Civil Defense Administrator Ben Fuata said he had received reports of sirens being delayed but lacked specifics as to where and how many.

“There were other areas that were affected and we’re looking into this at this time,” he said.

Residents of Mountain View, upper Waiakea and other East Hawaii communities also noted problems with sirens through social media.

Reports had yet to be confirmed, Fuata noted, adding county staff will have a better idea after the system’s monthly test on Thursday.

Fuata, after being asked repeatedly, said he didn’t have information at-hand as to how many reports of failing or delayed sirens Civil Defense had received.

“If I find it, I’ll get it to you,” he said.

Benedict, who didn’t provide that information by press time, referred the Tribune-Herald to police dispatch for a more timely response.

Dispatch said that information would have to come from Civil Defense.

Fuata said the county will have personnel stationed at each of the 71 sirens for the test Thursday.

Fixing the problem, he said, is a priority.

“How can we improve it or streamline our efforts to ensure safety of the public … is first and foremost,” Fuata said.

In its press release, the county said its “human response was executed according to plan,” noting that police and fire personnel were deployed to shoreline areas to spread the word of the evacuation, and several helicopters were in the air.

Alerts also went out by phone, text messages and through email.

Patrick Kahawaiolaa, Keaukaha Neighborhood Association president, said he didn’t hear the sirens there until 9:10 p.m. Saturday, nearly half an hour after he heard radio reports of them being used in Kona.

The late sirens appeared to compound problems for residents of the bottle-necked neighborhood, who drove to escape routes at the makai side of Hilo International Airport.

The gates to the airfield, an evacuation route for the community sandwiched between the ocean and airport, remained closed even though cars had lined up a block-and-a-half back, according to Kahwaiolaa, who said airport security didn’t let them through until they heard the sirens.

“It’s frustrating because you hear the television reporters” warning of “imminent danger,” he said.

“If it’s just a few minutes, fine. But why did it take Hilo that long?”

Kahawaiolaa said he planned to talk to Civil Defense about the issue today.

Fuata said the airport is responsible for the gates and that it has to ensure the runway is clear before they can be opened.

John Drummond, Civil Defense operations planner, said it’s not rare for a few sirens to malfunction during the monthly tests; there was no indication that Keaukaha sirens were a problem during the last test, he said.

The county said all shoreline and low-lying areas were evacuated by 10:05 p.m., about 30 minutes before tsunami waves were expected to arrive.

Fuata said the county was fortunate that the event passed without injury.

“As fortunate as we may be I will always as your emergency manager remain vigilant as I will always err on the side of caution to make sure we are a step ahead and that everybody is more prepared,” he said.

Shelters were set up at schools and police kept would-be onlookers away from the shore.

Hotel guests in Hilo were provided shuttles to a shelter area at Prince Kuhio Plaza.

Mark and Jen Wilcox of Winnipeg, Canada, staying at the Hilo Hawaiian, were notified of the tsunami warning by hotel staff at about 8:30 p.m., they said.

The couple described an almost surreal scene of guests piling into elevators and mixing with Halloween party guests dressed in costumes in the lobby who were still absorbing the information.

One guest, Mark Wilcox said, was demanding a discount for the evacuation and refused to leave until escorted out.

“It reminded me of a movie,” Jen Wilcox said.

“We saw the (tsunami) warning signs. We never thought we’d have to deal with this.”

While standing on the bridge to Coconut Island in Hilo on Sunday morning, Ronald Bento analyzed the water below looking for changes in currents or turbidity that could have been signs of a tsunami.

Bento said he was at a wedding party Saturday night at Aunty Sally’s Luau Hale when police told them they would have to evacuate.

The bride and groom were disappointed, he said, but he welcomed the precaution.

“Sometimes you are excited to see it,” Bento said of a tsunami. “But you don’t want to.”

Passengers of a Celebrity Cruise ship that docked in Hilo on Sunday may have had the wildest ride of all.

Two passengers, Kenna and Jerry Leonhardt of Texas, said the boat was being rocked by waves on the way in, possibly generated by the earthquake.

“We didn’t know about it but we could feel the waves,” Kenna Leonhardt said.

Email Tom Callis at


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