Public needs information, warnings during emergencies
Officials are reviewing communication problems that emerged after Sunday's earthquakes.
STATE Civil Defense officials say the magnitudes of the earthquakes that shook Hawaii Sunday were not severe enough to trigger tsunami alerts through sirens and broadcasts on the airwaves.
However, ordinary citizens cannot be expected to be aware of such esoteric thresholds, and the lack of information -- especially with the ensuing loss of electricity across the state's most populous island -- might have needlessly caused alarm.
In an emergency the public needs assurances as well as warnings to avoid panic. If there are dangers ahead, people need to be cautioned; if the situation is under control, they need to hear that, too.
Hawaii was fortunate that the quakes did not result in deaths or serious injuries and that the event will allow an assessment of successes and failures. In addition to improving the shaky communications infrastructure, as Gov. Linda Lingle has called for, officials should figure out a way to deliver good news as well.
For much of Sunday morning, residents on Oahu and the neighbor islands did not know what was going on, what to expect and what was being done. The statement by the governor and other officials that it should have been obvious that there had been an earthquake did not acknowledge that there were many, including tourists, newcomers and young people, who had never experienced such a seismic episode.
The public did not know for sure that a tsunami had not been generated, just that there were no sirens, which some thought failed because of the blackout. Those who had access to radio or television found a dearth of information.
Civil Defense officials told the Star-Bulletin's Gene Park that alerts go out only when a quake exceeds a 6.9 magnitude; Sunday's quakes registered 6.7 and 6.0. They said no messages are issued when there are no tsunamis generated because people might not hear the "no" part of the message or misunderstand the communication.
It is safe to say that most people can understand a simple statement and that repetition would prevent them from receiving partial declarations.
As it was, the absence of information left many people in limbo. Current procedures have the public guessing when an authoritative word is essential.
This was evident in the confusion at hotels and tourist facilities in Waikiki. Some visitors, recalling the devastating tsunami in Indonesia, headed for higher ground, thinking similar waves would be coming here, and hotel officials were unable to say otherwise with any certainty. They could only presume. In natural disasters, acting on presumptions is risky.