Tsunami lessons learned

Ed Teixeira
Ed Teixeira
Gerard Fryer
Gerard Fryer

By Jim Mendoza - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The sirens at 6 a.m. were the public's first warning that a tsunami -- triggered by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake off Chile -- was heading toward Hawaii. By then State Civil Defense had been watching it for hours.

"I think the word I'm looking for -- it was strenuous," State Civil Defense vice director Ed Teixeira said.

While boaters pulled up anchor and sailed to deeper seas, police cleared streets close to shorelines and warned people away from the beach.

Looking back, Teixeira said the exodus was orderly but not fast enough.

"Even at 6 a.m., sounding our outdoor siren warning system, that gave us five plus hours. We've got to do that job in three hours," he said.

Over the past twelve months agencies that monitor tsunami threats to Hawaii and alert the public have improved operations, enhanced equipment, and updated source material.

The biggest complaint Civil Defense heard was that some warning sirens did not sound.

Since the tsunami the state has poured $10 million into a five-year plan to increase the number of emergency sirens and upgrade old ones to solar powered systems.

"We've got money. We have a program. And we're coming in to replace and modernize about 141 siren systems," Teixeira said.

Since last February, changes have also been made to Oahu's tsunami inundation maps.

"You can see the difference between the new and the old map," University of Hawaii researcher Kwok Fai Cheung said.

He was in charge of the making the first update to the maps in nearly twenty years. He said in Waikiki, downtown and east Honolulu a tsunami surge could travel farther inland than what the old maps showed.

"We modeled all five tsunamis that impacted Hawaii during the last 100 years," he said. "Now I have a computer model that can simulate the impact of the tsunami over the entire island."

Cheung is now working on new inundation maps for the rest of the state.

At the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, geophysicist Gerard Fryer said scientists are better equipped today to stay on top of a tsunami wave than they were a year ago.

"It's getting better and better and better," he said.

The center has more monitoring sources to tap into, more tide gauges and seismometers to watch in the Pacific and around Chile, and a larger base of computer generated tsunami models to aid in predicting how a tsunami will behave.

"We have improved our ability to work out earthquake magnitude. We can now calculate magnitudes faster and more accurately," he said.

Fryer said the warning center is discussing with Hawaii's four counties the option of issuing individual tsunami alerts that could differentiate where a tsunami surge could be the worst, meaning some areas may not have to evacuate while others do.

"We will have the ability to tell the difference between an intermediate level tsunami and a really bad one," he said.

Civil Defense computer servers got swamped last February by a rush of people who logged on to find their evacuation zones.

"We began making changes that very day on moving all of that stuff onto a different server system produced by NOAA," Teixeira said.

The tsunami forced agencies like Civil Defense and the tsunami warning center to look at their operations with a critical eye.

As they prepare for the next tsunami, disaster responders and scientists have history to look at. The 1946 and 1960 tsunamis that ravaged Hilo are still reliable sources to study. Last February's tsunami warning gives them newer data to dissect to help improve operations.

"Is a ninety percent rate adequate? Our goal is 100 percent," Teixeira said.

Teixeira said Hawaii's tsunami forecasters and Civil Defense have made improvements and more will follow because the clock is ticking to when the warning sirens sound again.

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