“Do not wait for sirens. Do not turn on the radio. Don't look at TV. Get out of there. ... People did not do that. The visitor industry did not give people those instructions, and it's terribly discouraging.”
An alert public is best defense
Based on reactions to the October quake, an expert says residents and tourists are not ready for a tsunami
Thousands would have been killed if the Oct. 15 Big Island earthquakes had triggered a tsunami, because people in low-lying areas who felt the ground shake did not move to higher ground, says a Hawaii tsunami scientist.
Dan Walker, tsunami adviser to Oahu's Department of Emergency Management, said, "Do not wait for sirens. Do not turn on the radio. Don't look at TV. Get out of there. ... People did not do that. The visitor industry did not give people those instructions, and it's terribly discouraging."
All the money being spent to improve the tsunami warning system is a waste if people respond as they did during the earthquakes, Walker said.
"The real issue is education," said Walker. Frustrated by public complacency, he advocates mandatory tsunami education in the schools and visitor industry.
Schools include natural-disaster information in studies of weather, said a Department of Education spokeswoman. But a more comprehensive tsunami education program could be coming if the DOE approves a K-12 curriculum being developed by the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo.
What It Is
A tsunami (Japanese word for "harbor waves") is a series of waves triggered by earthquakes or landslides in the ocean that cause the earth's crust to rise or fall. Waves can travel up to 600 mph in the open ocean and reach heights of more than 100 feet.
The first sign of a tsunami can be unusual disappearance of water or an unusual wall of water.
Local earthquakes with magnitude 6.9 and distant earthquakes with magnitude 7.9 or more could trigger watches or warnings.
A tsunami watch means you should prepare to evacuate -- a tsunami is possible in three to six hours after a distant earthquake.
A tsunami warning is issued when a tsunami is confirmed and first waves are expected to arrive in three hours or less. A tsunami could arrive almost immediately or within 45 minutes after a local earthquake, depending on the location.
» Check telephone book white pages to see if your home is in an evacuation zone.
» Develop a family emergency plan; identify an evacuation route and shelter.
» Prepare an emergency kit for at least three days with medicines, nonperishable foods, water, matches, candles, flashlights, can opener, radio, spare batteries, eyeglasses, personal hygiene items, clothing, a first-aid kit, bedding and copies of important papers.
» Go immediately inland or to higher ground if you feel the ground shaking.
» Evacuate low-lying coastal areas if you hear sirens. Go inland or to higher ground. If you are not in an evacuation zone, stay where you are and off the roads to avoid traffic gridlock.
» If you are in a reinforced concrete structure of six or more floors, go to the third floor or higher if you cannot leave the area.
» Do not pick up children from school. Schools have emergency and evacuation plans and will keep children until an "all clear" is announced.
» Do not tie up telephones, go to the beaches sightseeing or try to surf "killer" tsunami waves.
» Monitor broadcasts for Civil Defense tsunami bulletins.
For more information, go to www.tsunami.gov.
Sources: Oahu Department of Emergency Management and Pacific Tsunami Warning Center
The state Department of Defense recently awarded a contract to the museum for the project, said state Civil Defense Vice Director Edward Teixeira. Some volunteer educators could be involved, and sections will be shared with the DOE as they are developed, he said.
"We're looking for constant feedback so it's not the museum putting this all together and then finding out it's something the DOE can't use."
It cannot happen soon enough for Walker, who says people do not understand what to do in a locally generated or Pacific-wide tsunami.
State tourism liaison Marsha Wienert disagrees. "Quite honestly, I think the visitor industry statewide performed very well after Oct. 15," she said.
She said the greatest challenge was being able to communicate to the visitor industry on Oahu because communications were lost. Most emergency contacts were cell phone numbers, and cell providers were not working, she said.
But text messaging seemed to work, and "also the good old-fashioned phone," Wienert said. Alternatives are being explored based on communications task force recommendations, she said.
She said all hotels, time shares and other visitor units "have plans to ensure that guests here are safe and secure," and some practice them regularly. Their plans, policies and procedures were reviewed after the Indian Ocean tsunami and are being revisited because of recent events, she said.
Lessons were learned from the Kurile Island earthquakes that caused tsunami surge on Hawaii coastlines Nov. 15 and Jan. 13, officials said.
People along the shorelines were alerted that possible waves were coming on Nov. 15, and they still went to the beach, Walker said. Then people panicked Nov. 27 with the "crazy rumor" about a pending earthquake and tsunami, he said.
"It's very disturbing, and you almost don't want to make instrumental improvements. What's the point if people don't have fundamental understanding what to do in a Pacific-wide tsunami or local tsunami?
"In a sense," Walker added, "We're worse off than Indonesia. We have knowledge, expertise and equipment to prevent a locally generated tsunami from doing major damage or causing loss of life. People in Indonesia didn't have that. The same thing can be happening to us because we're not taking actions we need to take."
The November hoax underscored the need for greater tsunami awareness, said John Cummings, Department of Emergency Management spokesman. "It was amazing to me how many people were panicking."
It was an unconfirmed rumor, but most people told him someone predicted an earthquake that would cause a tsunami, he said. He tried to tell them earthquakes cannot be predicted, and "they flat out would not believe me."
The Public Affairs Working Group of the Tsunami Technical Review Committee is examining how well the public is aware and prepared for a tsunami, Cummings said.
It is looking at coordinating some public service announcements focusing on the science and emergency actions, he said.
State Civil Defense spokesman Ray Lovell said officials decided after Oct. 15 and especially after the hoax that "people don't understand traditional methods" of informing them about disaster preparedness and evacuation.
Telephone books still will be used, he said, "but we want to do this at the grass-roots level." It is planned to hire a state citizen corps coordinator to train volunteers for community emergency response teams, he said.
One goal is to create a "culture of preparedness," to get people to practice preparedness in their homes with an emergency kit and supplies, he said.
The other is to identify special-needs residents who might need help in an emergency, he said. Including seniors, this group makes up about 40 percent of the population, he said.
"We really have to educate people on preparedness without frightening them," Lovell said, pointing it has been a long time since Hawaii has had a major disaster affecting a large area.
The Oct. 15 earthquakes demonstrated the need to inform the public when no destructive tsunami is generated by a similar earthquake, he said.
Broadcasters were asked to program their emergency alert receivers to the civil emergency message code, and when the aftershock occurred, a quick message was put out that no tsunami was generated, Lovell said.
"In the future, as long as a broadcasting station is on the air, we'll be able to get that kind of message out, and we will only blow sirens when there is a threat to the islands."
The way they describe what happened also might change, Lovell said, pointing out ocean surges from earthquakes can be dangerous for swimmers and boaters although no dangerous tsunami is expected.
Scientists can be more accurate in predictions because of a lot of new technology, he said. "We want people to know if the warning center says it's a warning and we get the word out, the great likelihood is there will be damage along the coastlines."