"Tens of millions" in tsunami damage at Papahanaumokuakea

Published: Mar. 28, 2011 at 7:59 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 28, 2011 at 11:17 PM HST
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Laysan field camps. The structure in the middle of the frame is the NMFS camp, packed up after...
Laysan field camps. The structure in the middle of the frame is the NMFS camp, packed up after the evacuation. Debris and torn up vegetation can be seen below both of these camps. Photo courtesy NOAA PIFSC. - Sam Pooley.
Satellite image of Kure Atoll courtesy NOAA.
Satellite image of Kure Atoll courtesy NOAA.

By Brooks Baehr - bio | email

KALAELOA (HawaiiNewsNow) - An initial assessment of damage at Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) shows the tsunami that hit late on the evening of March 10 and early in the morning on March 11 did "tens of millions" of dollars in damage to infrastructure.

Wildlife experts estimate the tsunami killed more than 100,000 albatross and may have wiped out the entire population of Laysan finch on Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Fortunately all the people on islands at Papahanaumokuakea survived.

There were 65 people on Midway, seven people on Laysan Island, five on Kure Atoll, and about five on French Frigate Shoals.

"We've had drills many times and everybody knew where all the gear was that was supposed to go on the roof. So we had our satellite phone, and our life vests, and out wet suits and our fins," said Cynthia Vanderlip, Kure Atoll field supervisor for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Vanderlip and four others were stuck on Kure as the tsunami approached. They climbed on top of the tallest building, an 11 foot high cinder block building seven feet above sea level, and waited.

"The first wave hit before midnight and we could hear it. We couldn't see it. We could hear the brush breaking. We listened to a radio, a shortwave radio, and we knew that there was a lot of damage in Japan. We just listened for a minute because it sounded terrifying and I think it was scaring people so turned that off," Vanderlip told Hawaii News Now.

"Our life raft was tied to the building. It was too hard to get it up on top of the building. It was too heavy, so we had life vests on and we had set suits there and we brought fins. But mostly the plan was more … there were lines on the roof that we would tie to ourselves. If we were washed off the roof, we wouldn't be washed off the island," she said.

The Coast Guard flew over the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands last week taking video and giving wildlife experts a bird's eye view of the damage. Representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and state DLNR held a press conference Monday, March 28, to discuss the situation.

They said as many as 110,000 albatross on Midway, most of them chicks, were killed by the tsunami.

"One of the things that we aren't able to ascertain yet is the status of the Laysan finch," said Beth Flint, a wildlife biologist with NOAA.

The Laysan Finch lived just two places on earth; Laysan Island and Pearl & Hermes Atoll. The species survived the tsunami on Laysan, but the tsunami may have killed every Laysan Finch on Pearl & Hermes.

"They roost in burrows and in the marine debris and in the low vegetation on the island, and at night they don't fly. They are just sleeping. If the wave covered the entire island that night, and we don't know if it did yet, it's hard to tell from the over flight, we could have lost the entire population of several hundred little birds," Flint said.

It appears sea turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals fared well in the tsunami. All eight Hawaiian Monk Seal mother / pup pairs known to have been in Papahanaumokuakea before the tsunami have been seen since.

Ray Born, acting Papahanaumokuakea Deputy Superintendent for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said a seawall protecting the runway at Midway was damaged. Repairing the seawall, he said, is important because the runway at Midway serves as an emergency landing strip for international flights including commercial airliners.

The boat harbor at Midway was also damaged.

Born said repairs in the aftermath of the tsunami are likely to cost "tens of millions" of dollars.

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