By PETER SUR/Tribune-Herald staff writer
(Update, 1:12 a.m.) --- Gov. Neil Abercrombie issued an announcement downgrading the tsunami warning to a tsunami advisory, Mayor Billy Kenoi said.
"Right now, as of 1 a.m., the governor is issuing a decision that is reducing a tsunami wwarning to a tsunami advisory," the mayor said. The restrictions were to remain in effect at least until 1:15 a.m. so a visual assessment of the coastline could be completed.
A tsunami advisory downgrading "does not mean an all-clear," Kenoi emphasized. But it was a sign that officials believed the worst had passed.
Harbors and beaches remained closed pending the visual assessment, and the county prepared to give the all-clear signal.
"At this point in time we just want to get the final assessment and determination before we send people back to their homes," Kenoi said.
Kenoi said 4-foot surges were seen in six-minute intervals at Wailoa Small Boat Harbor and other activity at the Hilo breakwater and the Kailua-Kona pier.
There were reports of boats moving around at the Wailoa harbor due to the wave surges.
As of 1 a.m., there were no reports of damage or injuries.
Kenoi thanked residents and businesses for responding "really well" to the warning.
"Ultimately, everybody was evacuated in time and safely," he said.
The mayor said some sirens did not go off initially, but the evacuation process was already under way.
Tidal surges are expected to continue through Sunday morning, and people are urged to exercise extreme caution while the effects of the tsunami continue to be felt.
(Update, 12:37 a.m. Sunday) --- Bill Hanson, Civil Defense Agency staff officer, said Hawaii remains under a tsunami warning early this morning.
"We're still experiencing wave fluctuations, surges," he said at 12:20 a.m. Sunday after a lengthy midnight videoconference with State Civil Defense.
"We're just going to watch at this time. We're going to continue under the tsunami warning and update that as things occur, as information changes," Hanson said.
The Red Cross is housing at least 850 people at shelters across the island, including 350 at the West Hawaii Civic Center and 200 at Kealakehe High School.
In addition, some of the hotels on Hilo's Banyan Drive have relocated their residents to Prince Kuhio Plaza.
Late Saturday night, Ben Fuata, Civil Defense Administrator, pinpointed the cause of the initial confusion over whether there was a tsunami warning.
"It was confusing, to say the least."
The initial alert came from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center on Saturday afternoon of a magnitude 7.7-7.8 earthquake, around 5:05 p.m.
The warning center then issued an informational bulletin downgrading the earthquake to a magnitude-7.1, which would not have triggered a tsunami warning.
Fuata said Civil Defense was in the process of preparing a public information release informing the public about this downgraded earthquake when a second earthquake in the area of the Queen Charlotte Islands, measuring a magnitude-7.7, struck.
That second earthquake met the criteria for a tsunami warning. The conflicting messages over whether there was a tsunami warning is something that Civil Defense and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center will have to review closely in the future to avoid a repeat of this confusion, Fuata said.
(Update, 9:22 p.m. Saturday) --- The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency's Emergency Operations Center was thrown into full mobilization Saturday night as the tsunami from British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands approached.
As is the standard procedure during the tsunami warnings in 2010 and 2011, county department heads streamed into the EOC, located in a windowless compound adjacent to the Hilo police station.
Confusion was the order of the day as worried residents called in to the center seeking real information on the contradictory information that was bouncing around the airwaves and on social media.
Callers wanted to know: Was there a warning? Was there still a watch? Will there be an evacuation? When will the first siren sound?
Reports emerged that the sirens in East Hawaii were not sounding, with other unverified information surfacing that sirens elsewhere around the island had not sounded.
As late as 8 p.m., one radio station was broadcasting an old message that a tsunami warning was not in effect.
The EOC functions as the county's nerve center during emergencies, coordinating responses among county agencies and with State Civil Defense and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
People living in coastal areas were urged to begin evacuating immediately, with the last people out of the evacuation zone by 9:30 p.m., an hour before the waves were first expected to arrive in Hawaii.
Community evacuation shelters were being opened at county facilities in Papaaloa, Honokaa, Pahoa, Panaewa Park, the Waimea Community Center, Hisaoka Gym, Pahoa and the Imin Center.
Mayor Billy Kenoi arrived at 8:10 p.m., and in the temporary absence of Civil Defense Agency administrator Ben Fuata, tried to take charge of the situation.
"Everybody, we've been through this before. We know what to do. Thanks everyone for doing a great job," he said.
Despite an initial glitch, all sirens in East Hawaii have sounded, Kenoi said.
Following a closed-door conference call, the mayor said that estimates still held for a tsunami of 4-5 feet arriving in Hawaii shores late Saturday night. Hotels have been notified and were evacuating guests.
Fuata, who was driving from Kona, arrived in the Hilo EOC shortly after 9:30 p.m. and went to work.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center initially said there was no tsunami warning, and upgraded it at 7:40 p.m. Sirens initially sounded around 8:15 p.m., Kenoi said.
Residents worried about gas shortages took to the filling stations in droves, with some motorists sitting in their cars for half an hour waiting for a chance to fill up their tanks.
The Hilo International Airport runway was closed at 8:30 a.m. to allow Keaukaha residents to stream through the emergency evacuation routes and across the airport runway.
The atmosphere in the EOC appeared to relax by a notch around 10 p.m., with coastal evacuations well under way as the county's nerve center prepared for the arrival of the first wave.
Trail mix snacks were passed around, and a few people stepped away from the EOC for a few minutes to watch the TV news coverage in an adjacent break room.
Aides to the mayor passed around the latest updates on the progress of the wave, most showing wave heights of less than 2 feet. In the break room, Kenoi expressed hope that the wave's arrival would be nothing more than an exercise, but it was too soon to know what would happen.
Around 10:20 p.m., Fuata said that the final siren had sounded to get the emergency responders out o fthe evacuation area, and that the Keaukaha evacuation should have been completed. The rest of Fuata's briefing was closed to the public.