Tuesday, July 28, 1998

Hawaii’s tsunami
danger real, experts
say at briefing

A lesson can be learned
from the devastation in
Papua New Guinea

By Pete Pichaske


WASHINGTON -- National weather experts are hoping the tsunami that devastated Papua, New Guinea, 10 days ago, killing at least 3,000 people, will help convince residents in vulnerable states like Hawaii that, yes, it could happen in this country.

"Public education is such a big task when there's so much time between events," said Charles S. McCreery, geophysicist-in-charge at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach.

"You hate to say there's any benefit from devastation like that, but for us, it's a freebie in terms of public education."

Click image for full-size NASA satellite photo of Darby
as of 11:00 a.m. HST, today (110K JPEG)

Hurricane Darby
could bring heavy showers

Hurricane Darby, about 1,200 miles east of the Big Island, is headed toward the central Pacific with 95 mph winds and gusts to 120 mph.

It will be the first hurricane in this region in four years if it maintains its strength, said Bob Farrell, National Weather Service lead forecaster.

He said, however, it's weakening and may not be a hurricane when it reaches the central Pacific about midnight.

Hawaii still could get thunderstorms and heavy showers from Darby starting Friday.

McCreery joined a handful of the nation's top experts for a briefing here today aimed both at educating the public on the tsunami threat and assuring the public that threat is being dealt with more adeptly than ever.

"We are vulnerable, we are becoming better prepared," said Don Hull, a geologist in Oregon. "But we still have a long way to go."

With undersea earthquakes and volcanoes bubbling almost constantly in the Pacific, the threat to five states (Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington) is very real, the experts said. And it is most real in Hawaii, which has suffered more devastation than any state.

Early detection is the key to avoiding the loss of human life, the scientists said, and despite advances, early detection can be difficult with many tsunamis.

Hawaii, for example, which is hooked up to an international network of seismic stations and ocean buoy systems, would have an estimated three hours warning for a major, Pacific-wide tsunami, which would leave people plenty of time to evacuate coastal areas.

But a more local tsunami, such as the one that hit Papua, New Guinea, could hit a coast with virtually no warning, said McCreery.

The good news is that while other states are catching up, Hawaii remains more aware of the danger of tsunamis than any other state, according to McCreery. "Hawaii has evacuation maps printed in the front of phonebooks," he noted. "Those kind of maps don't exist in other states."

The additional good news is that while tsunamis remain notoriously difficult to detect in advance, detection systems are improving.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program will add six deep ocean tsunami detectors in the Pacific within the next couple of years, officials said today.

These buoy-based systems can detect tsunami waves more quickly and accurately than land-based systems, and will offer Hawaii better protection from tsunamis originating in the north and the east, said McCreery.

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