Monday, December 27, 2004

Isle response
hard to predict

Tsunami experts say a lack
of recent alerts invites

In May 1986 the threat of a tsunami forced the evacuation of all of Hawaii's shores. Children were released from schools, and employees from workplaces. It did not take long for traffic to back up on most major roadways.

By the time the first seismic sea waves were forecast to hit, thousands were still in the "danger zone" -- many stuck in their cars, said tsunami expert Gerard Fryer. If the tsunami had been real and not just a false alarm, dozens could have been killed.

Though Hawaii's tsunami warning system has been improved in the last 18 years, experts fear the islands still are not as prepared as they could be in the event of tidal waves. And many say residents appear complacent about the threat, largely because a long-distance tsunami has not hit the islands since 1964.

"We're in a bad situation," said Fryer, a University of Hawaii geology professor and an adviser to state Civil Defense. "We don't know how the public's going to react. It's going to be brand new for all of us."

Scientists say the threat for Hawaii of seismic sea waves -- like those that left thousands dead in eight countries yesterday after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the Indonesian island of Sumatra -- is very real but underestimated.

And Hawaii is due for a tsunami, which, unlike a hurricane, has no season and could hit any time of the year, Fryer said.

Before 1964, tsunamis hit the islands every seven years on average. Most were deadly. One of the worst came in 1946, when 159 people were killed.

"The thing that's amazing is that we haven't had a tsunami in 40 years," said Gregory Moore, a UH professor of geology and geophysics.

"You would have expected several to occur since that time."

Charles McCreery, head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center based in Ewa Beach, said there are some good lessons to be learned from the recent disasters. "It serves as a reminder to all in Hawaii that these events will occur," he said. "We need to continue our preparedness so when they strike in the Pacific, they don't strike with such consequences."

If the same massive earthquake that happened just off Sumatra were to have occurred near Alaska or Chile, Hawaii would have gotten tidal waves within as few as three hours. Experts say that is plenty of time to warn people.

But evacuating people would be another problem. Traffic would likely be an issue, even if Waikiki residents were told to go to high floors in an apartment building rather than try to leave -- which happened during a false alarm in 1994, Fryer said.

Some are also unsure residents are well versed enough in tsunami evacuation procedures, which include knowing where tsunami evacuation zones are and where to go in the event of a warning.

Also, Fryer said seabed sensors have been placed between Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands to detect any seismic waves from a quake and get as much time as possible to issue a tsunami warning, but there are no sensors between the islands and Chile.

"If it (an earthquake) came from South America," Moore said, "I'm not sure we're covered." And if an earthquake were generated on the Big Island -- a real possibility, says Moore -- there would be just minutes to warn Oahu residents of an approaching tsunami.

The state's warning system, though, "is way, way better than it was" just a decade ago, Fryer said. Also, state Civil Defense officials conduct tsunami warning exercises periodically to test preparedness.

McCreery said if a warning system -- like the one that serves the islands -- would have been in place in the areas affected by the recent tidal waves, officials "should've been able to get word out to those regions in time to take some necessary action."

He said the Pacific warning center tried frantically after the earthquake hit to get the word out to those countries in the path of tidal waves, but was unable to because there were no contact numbers available.

The lack of a tsunami warning system is likely to be a hot topic in the coming weeks as people try to understand what went wrong, said Arun Swamy, an East-West Center fellow who specializes in South Asian politics.

"They were not plugged into this international effort to monitor tsunamis," he said. "There was certainly a lot of time. It would have been easy to evacuate people. But no one knew ... to prepare for it."

Earlier this month, at a conference for the International Tsunami Information Center in Honolulu, the topic of creating a tsunami warning system for South Asia was discussed, Fryer said. The biggest obstacle would be getting word out to rural areas with little communication infrastructure, he said.

"Certainly this event is going to raise the threat in the Indian Ocean to a level that hasn't been before," said McCreery, adding there is likely to be more discussion about the creation of a tsunami warning system in the devastated areas.

A warning system needs to be ready 24 hours a day to get word out to the public. But first, McCreery recommended that practical procedures need to be looked at for periods in between events. Using cellular phones was one suggestion. "If there is a way to disseminate communication through cell phones," he said, "it would be a novel approach."

Star-Bulletin writer Rosemarie Bernardo contributed to this report.

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