CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Andre Huste, a professional diver, observed unusual wave activity in the ocean off Kewalo Basin yesterday. An 8.1-magnitude earthquake off Japan prompted Hawaii officials to keep swimmers out of dangerous beach areas yesterday morning. CLICK FOR LARGE
Tsunami alert passes after quake near Japan
Hawaii is spared destructive waves, but Hanauma Bay is closed due to ocean surge
The tsunami racing 600 mph across the Pacific Ocean early yesterday morning was just over an inch tall.
But sensitive scientific instruments that measure changes in sea level could detect its presence, scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said yesterday.
Although 1.3 inches of water does not sound like much, when it represents a wave that goes all the way to the floor of the ocean, it is a lot of water, Director Charles "Chip" McCreery and geophysicists Gerard Fryer and Robert Cessaro said.
The tsunami had been generated by an 8.1-magnitude earthquake at 1:14 a.m. yesterday Hawaii time in the Kuril Islands, north of Japan. It was expected to affect Hawaii waters in about six hours, but the question was, How much?
The surges started hitting the islands at about 7:45 a.m., with the largest being 5 feet tall at Kahului. No injuries or damage were reported, but beaches on the Big Island were closed and the city shut down Hanauma Bay because of strong surges.
Alerted to the quake by its alarm system, the scientists at the center almost immediately had warned Japan and Russia, the two nearest countries.
Their next step was to combine sea level readings from remote deep-ocean sensors in the Pacific and the Aleutian Islands with sophisticated tsunami forecasting models. The good news was, "we felt confident we weren't going to see any kind of extra-large destructive tsunami in Hawaii," McCreery said.
With the first tsunami wave three to four hours away, the experts at the center decided in tandem with state and county Civil Defense officials not to issue a tsunami warning that would have triggered evacuations from low-lying areas.
"But there would be a tsunami that might be a hazard to people near the shore -- swimmers and recreational boaters," McCreery said. There could be surges, unusual currents and changes in sea level that could vary widely by area, he said.
So for the first time in Hawaii's history, Civil Defense, police, fire, lifeguard and other public-service workers alerted people on or near Hawaii's beaches and harbors that waves were coming.
Based on the fact that there were no major injuries reported yesterday, it seems that the decision worked well, said Bryan Cheplic, spokesman for the Honolulu Emergency Services Department.
"It was unbelievably wonderful," Cheplic said, noting that on Oahu only one person -- a 70-year-old woman swimming at Kuhio Beach -- was treated on the beach for minor cuts and bruises after a surge of water.
On Kauai a visitor walking on the North Shore was pulled briefly into the water but was able to get out uninjured, Kauai Civil Defense officials said.
Variations between high and low water measured in harbors ranged as widely as 5 feet in Kahului. Other harbors with fluctuations over 35 inches from high to low water included Nawiliwili on Kauai, Haleiwa and Waianae on Oahu, Kalaupapa on Molokai and Hilo Bay on the Big Island, according to measurements compiled yesterday by Pacific Tsunami Warning Center staff.
The time lapse between the highest and lowest water levels was generally about 20 minutes, Fryer said. Variations larger than normal were expected to continue through the night, though at smaller and smaller amplitudes, he said.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Charles "Chip" McCreery, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center director, explained yesterday how the 8.1-magnitude quake at the Kuril Islands produced a tsunami that affected water levels in some Hawaii harbors by as much as 5 feet. CLICK FOR LARGE
"The changes in sea level, surges and currents are all effects of the tsunami," McCreery said. "At the shoreline how it expresses itself can vary greatly because certain areas can amplify the wave. But everything is all part of the tsunami."
"We did not have a damaging tsunami, but we still had a tsunami anyway," echoed John Cummings III, spokesman for Oahu Civil Defense. "We've got no reports of any damages or anything, so we're pretty happy about that."
Little damage was reported as well on the neighbor islands, but Maui Civil Defense did receive as yet unsubstantiated reports of damage to moorings on Lanai.
Officials at Coast Guard Station Kauai said a tidal surge at 8:45 a.m. lightly damaged a small dock.
"It was crazy," said Coast Guard spokesman Stephen Allenbach. "It was a pretty exciting day." Within two minutes, he said, the water level rose 3 feet, then fell 3 feet.
The Coast Guard measured a 12-knot current in Nawiliwili Harbor, but luckily, no boats were in the area at the time, Allenbach said.
"We were really lucky," said Gen Iinuma, Maui Civil Defense administrator.
There were no injuries reported on Maui, Iinuma said, and beaches remained open throughout the morning, with lifeguards on hand to educate the public.
The surges focused on the North Shore of the Valley Isle in the early morning hours, but by midmorning, tidal surges were felt all over the island, as well as on Lanai and at Kalaupapa on Molokai.
Kahului Harbor, which is prone to surges, experienced "some dramatic water level change," Iinuma said, keeping barges away from the entrance for most of the morning.
Elsewhere on Maui, lifeguards reported seeing exposed reef and underwater rock formations from D.T. Fleming's beach on the North Shore to Kamaole on the south side.
Surges were seen all over the Garden Isle as well, Civil Defense officials reported.
On the Big Island, beaches were closed for the majority of the morning, while Kahaluu, Hapuna and Spencer beaches on the Kona Coast remained closed all day due to the tidal surges of 3 to 5 feet. But no damage or injuries were reported.
"It was better to be safe than sorry," said Lanny Nakano, Hawaii Civil Defense assistant administrator.
All Civil Defense officials said they worked closely with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center on Oahu.
"I can't say enough" about them, Iinuma said.
Still, he added, the public needs to take these tsunamis seriously and to take caution in inundation zones. "It was an 8.1" earthquake, Iinuma said. "If it were an 8.2, you would have seen a giant shift."
The last time a tsunami generated in the Kuril Islands affected Hawaii was in 1918, McCreery said.
According to center scientists, other notable moments in tsunami history for Hawaii include:
» 1946: 159 people killed in the state.
» 1960: 61 people killed in the state.
» 1986: Full evacuations ordered; no significant tsunami.
» 1994: Full evacuations ordered; no significant tsunami.
Hanauma Bay was closed yesterday at noon after surges continued to keep swimmers out of the water, and a surf contest at Alii Beach on Oahu's North Shore was postponed from morning to afternoon.
RIPPLES FROM THE RING OF FIRE
Here is a chronology of events after yesterday's early-morning Japanese earthquake:
1:14 a.m.: 8.1-magnitude quake hits off the Kuril Islands near Japan, part of the Pacific's seismically active Ring of Fire.
1:35 a.m.: The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issues a tsunami advisory for the Hawaiian Islands. The advisory means no destructive tsunami was expected for Hawaii, but coastal areas could experience sea level changes and strong or unusual currents for up to several hours, beginning as soon as 7:17 a.m.
2:21 a.m.: The center issues a tsunami watch for the state. The watch means an investigation is under way to determine if there is a tsunami threat to Hawaii.
2:55 a.m.: Oahu Civil Defense activates the command center.
5:04 a.m.: The tsunami watch is canceled because there is no risk of a destructive tsunami, but the center says the islands could see unusual ocean surges and currents starting at 7:28 a.m.
5:04 a.m.: Oahu Civil Defense sends out a request for police, fire, Civil Defense and ocean safety personnel to keep beachgoers out of the water.
7:45 a.m.: Oahu Civil Defense receives first report of effects from the tsunami wave. Variations are reported all around the islands.
9 a.m.: The effects of the tidal wave begin to abate.
9:10 a.m.: Emergency personnel are relieved from posts at swimming beaches. Beaches are opened to swimmers.
About noon: Hanauma Bay is closed because of surges up to and after noon.
Sources: State Civil Defense and Pacific Tsunami Warning Center
Star-Bulletin reporters Robert Shikina, Tom Finnegan and Rosemarie Bernardo contributed to this report.