On Saturday, February 27, 2010, Hawaii stopped. From 5:45 a.m. when the first round of automated Civil Defense messages went out via landline phones until 1:38 p.m. when the all clear sounded, most people in Hawaii stationed themselves in front of their television sets, computer monitors and/or mobile phones. Starting at 6:00 a.m., emergency sirens sounded, some louder than others, on the hour.
From a CNN breaking news text, I knew when I went to bed the night before that an 8.8 earthquake rocked Chile and a tsunami wave as high as 9 feet had been recorded. In 1960, an even stronger earthquake originating in this same area generated a tsunami that led to the deaths of 60-some people in Hilo. Hawaii immediately went into a state of alert—tsunami watch—with scientists diligently working overnight.
The local news reported that the tsunami—if the long wave continued—would hit Hawaii some time between 11:00 a.m. 11:30 a.m. on Sunday—and that they would cover it live.
When the first phone call woke me the next morning, I was told two things: 1) the tsunami watch had been elevated to a tsunami warning—high alert; and 2) the volunteer whale count for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was canceled.
Some headed to grocery stores to stock up on food (rice and spam), bottled water and toilet paper. Some waited in lines to fill up their car’s gas tanks. Some topped off their propane tanks. Others unmoored their boats and headed far out to sea.
Emergency workers went door to door in inundation zones evacuating people. Neighbors checked in with neighbors. Friends called friends. Helicopters flew over remote coastlines broadcasting to campers to move to higher ground.
My cell phone rang. My landline rang. My email in-box filled. Text messages beeped. Facebook and Twitter comments rolled in.
By 9:00 a.m., the initial round of communications slowed and we waited. For two more hours, we waited for this unwelcome visitor to land in Hawaii.
In Waikiki, hotels evacuated vertically—visitors moved to floors three and higher. In other areas, hotels shuttled guests to higher ground.
In total, across the state, more tan 50,000 people were evacuated. That’s almost the population of the island of Kauai alone.
Police closed roads. Emergency shelters braced. Hilo Airport shut down.
Waikiki was empty. No surfers. No beachgoers. No shoppers. Not a sight you’re likely to see again very soon.
And we waited.
I couldn’t help but think of the tsunami that devastated Indonesia five years ago. They had no idea.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, issued their warning with this statement:
A TSUNAMI IS A SERIES OF LONG OCEAN WAVES. EACH INDIVIDUAL WAVE CREST CAN LAST 5 TO 15 MINUTES OR MORE AND EXTENSIVELY FLOOD COASTAL AREAS. THE DANGER CAN CONTINUE FOR MANY HOURS AFTER THE INITIAL WAVE AS SUBSEQUENT WAVES ARRIVE. TSUNAMI WAVE HEIGHTS CANNOT BE PREDICTED AND THE FIRST WAVE MAY NOT BE THE LARGEST. TSUNAMI WAVES EFFICIENTLY WRAP AROUND ISLANDS. ALL SHORES ARE AT RISK NO MATTER WHICH DIRECTION THEY FACE. THE TROUGH OF A TSUNAMI WAVE MAY TEMPORARILY EXPOSE THE SEAFLOOR BUT THE AREA WILL QUICKLY FLOOD AGAIN. EXTREMELY STRONG AND UNUSUAL NEARSHORE CURRENTS CAN ACCOMPANY A TSUNAMI. DEBRIS PICKED UP AND CARRIED BY A TSUNAMI AMPLIFIES ITS DESTRUCTIVE POWER. SIMULTANEOUS HIGH TIDES OR HIGH SURF CAN SIGNIFICANTLY INCREASE THE TSUNAMI HAZARD.
As we listened to news broadcasts, we learned tsunami waves can travel in the open ocean at average speeds of 450 miles per hour. That’s the speed of your average airplane jetting across the sky. We learned that a tsunami is a series of waves—not just one. It is caused by the sudden displacement of a large body of water, oftentimes due to an earthquake. Depth and strength of the earthquake will determine the size of the tsunami, as well as its speed as it moves across the ocean. Weather forecasters reminded us that tsunami waves are NOT surf-able. They are “junk waves.”
Some time in the morning, scientists narrowed the tsunami’s arrival time to 11:04 a.m. in Hilo. By 11:42, it would hit Kauai, so they said.
These times were reported over and over with finality, like a judge’s gavel. But what about the waves’ height? I didn’t hear much on this topic—and I searched, too. Once I heard 10 feet; another five; another 13.
Indications of the tsunami’s arrival were apparent by 11:30 as the sea level surged some three feet in Hilo Bay. At Kahului Harbor on Maui, the ocean rose over three, the highest in the state. On Kauai, where I live, my husband and I estimated the surge at 10 inches at 12:50 p.m.
This was like our typical ebb and flow of daily tides—only in this case, the cycles lasted about 10 minutes. It was like I was watching time-lapse photography.
The tsunami’s result: No reported injuries. No reported damage. And Hawaii let out one collected sigh of relief.
Once the tsunami warning was lifted, and I turned my face skyward, I realized what a glorious day it was—sunny skies, high of 81 degrees and whispery winds. The perfect beach day.
Later that evening, as we said goodbye to Tsunami Saturday, the trade winds arrived en force. While the tsunami roared in like a mouse, our standard trade winds announced their arrival by slamming doors like a petulant child and blowing down potted plants on my lanai.