Tsunami Saturday: We Got Lucky

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - March 10, 2010
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Tsunami tidal surges exposed rarely seen reef off Waikiki

This one had all the ingredients of delivering widespread destruction, but we dodged a bullet.

The 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile was massive, one of the most powerful quakes in recorded history. Several hours later, a tsunami warning was issued for the entire state - completely justified and warranted, especially considering the deadly results in Hilo following a similar quake in 1960.

By noon, it was apparent Hawaii would be spared. The approaching waves were smaller than projected and the shifting tides not as severe as anticipated. No one was injured and no property damaged, and for that we should be thankful.

But critics will focus on the sirens that failed while others will shout the media over-reacted. Our job as a community is to learn from our mistakes and to build on what we did right.

We certainly benefited that this happened on a Saturday and not a school/workday, and it happened during the day and not at night. And there were other positives.

Despite flaws in our siren warning system, word of the tsunami warning traveled rapidly across the state. Most residents heard it on the “coconut wireless” while others received information via social networking sites, television and radio reports, and the Internet. Technological advances have improved communication and most residents knew what was coming well before the sirens sounded.

The early word gave everyone hours to prepare and head for higher ground.

Our hotels did a phenomenal job as well, calmly executing evacuation plans. More than an hour before the first wave was expected to hit, Kalakaua Avenue. was clear and a majority of our visitors were safe in their rooms or on higher ground.

It was a far different picture in 1986 during another tsunami scare. I was working as a valet at the Halekulani back then and I can still picture the grid-lock as thousands tried to make their way out of Waikiki. The freeways were clogged and people were confused. A destructive tsunami never arrived that day, but we learned many lessons.

The latest scare proved how far we’ve come. Our visitor industry and city and state agencies were ready. It was an opportunity to execute and Hawaii responded.

At least most of us did. I’ve covered many natural disasters over the years, some very close to home. In 1992, I walked through the rubble of our family’s home in Nawiliwili after Hurricane Iniki slammed into Kauai. And my parents have shared horror stories of the deadly tsunami that hit Hawaii on April Fools Day in 1946.

I’ve seen death and much destruction.

But what I saw Saturday as I stood with others on an 11th floor balcony at the Halekulani Hotel still baffles me. At 11:30, just minutes before the first wave was expected to hit Oahu, I watched two surfers paddle out from Waikiki Beach. Moments later, a paddle-boarder jumped in, followed by a snorkeler and finally two swimmers. Then two beach-goers found their way to the shoreline. We all stared in amazement, wondering why. I’m still flabbergasted.

I don’t understand the thrill or why some people feel the need to ride a tsunami. I kept asking myself: Is a surf session or a stroll on the beach that important?

Personally, I don’t think so because I have too much to live for. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the concept of “living like there’s no tomorrow,” but in this case there will be a tomorrow. The beach will be there as will the surf, that’s a guarantee.

Yes, we’ve learned much from the natural disasters in 1946, 1960, 1992 and now 2010. But it’s obvious we have much to learn. Life is too precious to risk it all just to catch a 2-foot wave.

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