Disaster education was key


POSTED: Monday, October 12, 2009

Lives were saved in American Samoa by tsunami awareness workshops, training and preparedness messages in the months before the disaster, key Hawaii-based officials say.

And Hawaii residents could benefit from the same awareness of the hazards of locally generated quakes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which urges coastal residents to “;heed natural warnings”; such as the ground tremors.

A volcano-related quake or landslide on the southeast side of Big Island is the most common scenario for tsu-namis that would hit Hilo and Kona in five minutes, Maui within 20 minutes and Honolulu within 40 minutes, perhaps before civil defense sirens can sound.

The 8.0-magnitude quake south of American Samoa on Sept. 29 generated a tsunami that arrived within about 25 minutes.

“;Almost everyone knew what to do and evacuated,”; said Pacific Tsunami Warning Center geophysicist Gerard Fryer in an e-mail from American Samoa. “;It is tragic that 32 died, but had the public not been so well educated, the death toll would have been far higher.”;

For Samoa and Tonga the toll was about 176, with one person still missing.

In Honolulu, Akapo Akapo, National Weather Service meteorologist in charge of the Pago Pago office, agreed with Fryer on Friday, saying, “;Education saved more lives than anything else.”;

Akapo said Pacific tsunami exercises and evacuation drills “;planted in minds of people”; of American Samoa what to do in a tsunami.

He said many people killed were in their cars and did not hear village bells ringing to warn people.

“;We don't have a siren system in American Samoa,”; Akapo said. “;I'm hoping after this tsunami the federal government will look more favorably at it.”;

When Akapo walked into his office and heard the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center estimate the quake's magnitude at 7.9, he immediately called Territorial Homeland Security to activate the warning system.

“;Right away (at 7:01 a.m.) from the information we had, we issued an alert verbally (via radio) even before the second wave,”; Akapo said. (The PTWC warning went out 16 minutes after the earthquake and nine minutes before the second wave, which was the first destructive wave, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

Akapo said his office also activated NOAA weather radios provided to all schools in the past year. The high-frequency radios can be set to turn on automatically for a severe weather or tsunami warning.

He said people “;are keen to learn more”; about tsunamis. “;We need continuing education and, hopefully, improved warning instrumentation.”;

Laura Kong, director of the International Tsunami Information Center in Honolulu, said lack of seismic stations in the Southwest Pacific limits information needed to pinpoint an earthquake quickly.

However, she said, China has been talking to Samoa's government about installing up to seven seismic stations on two islands, and Japan is working with Fiji and Tonga to provide seven or eight stations. The plan is for all the countries to share the data in real time to speed up determination of the epicenter, Kong said.

In February, Kong — along with Charles “;Chip”; McCreery, geophysicist in charge of the warning center at Ewa Beach, and Ed Young, deputy director of the National Weather Service, Pacific Region — went to an intergovernmental meeting in Apia for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Mitigation System.

In American Samoa they conducted tsunami preparedness workshops and briefings about tsunamis for agencies, ran a cable TV program and distributed tsunami safety materials to the schools.

A small tsunami March 19 in Tonga was “;another wake-up call”; for American Samoa, Kong said. She and McCreery raised some funds and went to American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga in July to conduct training in tsunami mitigation. Kong is leaving today for American Samoa to see what is needed.

Fryer said tsunami awareness presentations were made in many of American Samoa's coastal villages over the past few months, and Homeland Security ran a natural hazards program that was to end the week of the earthquake.

Everyone took the messages seriously, he said. The village of Amanave, with about 450 people, was demolished, but no one died, he noted.