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Mood in isles is calm yet vigilant


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POSTED: Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Hawaii Air and Army National Guard will send 86 medical, search and rescue, and communications specialists to American Samoa this morning in the aftermath of a deadly tsunami that triggered alerts across the Pacific.

The troops will leave aboard a C-17 cargo jet from Hickam Air Force Base for the battered South Pacific isle, about 2,600 miles south-southwest of Honolulu.

The 8.3-magnitude earthquake that triggered the destruction yesterday resulted in unusual wave action here, including a tidal surge of nearly 3.5 feet at Haleiwa, officials said.

But there were no reports of damage, and most beachgoers ignored warnings to stay out of the water in the early afternoon.

“;They never fired up their sirens, so I guess it's OK,”; said surfer Mike Egan, of Hawaii Kai, who headed to Rock Piles off the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

At the Diamond Head side of Waikiki Beach, some beachgoers observed the water level rising above the protective wall at about 1:30 p.m.

Jackie and Brian Ha of Huntington Beach, Calif., stayed out of the ocean but found that they had to move their beach towel repeatedly to keep it dry. “;It was scary,”; said Jackie Ha.

;[Preview]  Busy Morning At Pacific Tsunami Center
 

It was an intense morning at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, KITV4's Dick Allgire explains why.

Watch ]

 

The earthquake struck off American Samoa at about 7:48 a.m. Hawaii time, and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach issued a tsunami watch for Hawaii within 20 minutes. The magnitude of the quake initially was reported as 7.9 but was later estimated at between 8.0 and 8.3.

Even before the warning, state Civil Defense activated its Emergency Operations Center in Diamond Head Crater, with Maj. Gen. Bob Lee, state adjutant general, monitoring the situation and staying in touch with the counties' civil defense agencies.

The watch was canceled at 10:23 a.m., but city and state officials urged beachgoers and mariners to remain alert to the possibility of unusual tides and sea surges.

Initial bulletins said yesterday that there was the possibility that a tsunami could hit the islands in the early afternoon, beginning with Kauai's Nawiliwili Harbor at 1:12 p.m., then Hilo and finally Honolulu at 1:15 p.m.

State Civil Defense told state transportation officials that Kahului Harbor on Maui could expect waves as high as 5 feet, said Mike Formby, the department's deputy in charge of state harbors. Several barges were kept out of Kahului Harbor as a precaution, Formby added.

But by 2 p.m. no tsunami surges were reported at Kahului, Formby said. Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai recorded a 7-inch surge.

Big Island officials closed beach parks, but Oahu, Maui and Kauai beach parks remained open yesterday.

After the morning alert, Hawaii hotel officials prepared for a possible tsunami that would have forced evacuation, said state tourism liaison Marsha Wienert.

“;Typically they would evacuate vertically by simply moving higher within their own properties,”; she said.

But the warning was canceled so early in the day that few guests, if any, were affected, and most were unaware of the quasi- emergency, officials said.

“;We've been all on alert and communicating on a regular basis since first thing this morning,”; Wienert said. “;All island visitor bureaus checked in with Civil Defense, and every hotel property in the state was readying their individual plans.”;

On Kauai, where the tsunami would have hit first, phones were ringing off the hook, said Sue Kanoho, Kauai Visitors Bureau director. “;The calls were mostly hotel security checking in,”; Kanoho said.

The tidal surges started rolling through the island chain at about 1:15 p.m. and ended 15 minutes later, said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist at the Ewa Beach facility.

The city said several surges measuring about a foot hit the sea wall fronting Kuhio Beach in Waikiki.

As a precaution, Kamehameha Schools closed its Honaunau School in West Hawaii and its preschool on Molokai. School officials said their proximity to the shoreline prompted the closure. Other preschools and schools kept to their regular schedules.

 

Star-Bulletin reporters Rosemarie Bernardo and Allison Schaefers contributed to this report.