Since we've been back from Hawaii for a week or so, most people haven't really asked about how our trip was as much as they've asked about our experience of dealing with the tsunami warning due to the devastating 8.8 earthquake in Chile during our first weekend on the Big Island. I was reluctant about writing about it as even though it was sort of exciting at the time, the outcome turned out to be very anti-climactic. I really didn't know how I could make it interesting because there was all this tension and excitement, but it fizzled like a dry fart at the end. My sister said, "Oh, I'm sure you'll be able to make it interesting enough. I want to hear all the details. Not many people have gone through a tsunami warning."
Hawaii has been hit by some devastating tsunami's over the years. One of the most famous happened 50 years ago when a tsunami that was generated by an earthquake in the Aleutian Islands hit Hilo. There was adequate warning about the initial wave and most people were able to get to higher ground when it hit. However, when the wave receded, a number of townspeople gathered along the shore and in the downtown area to view the damage. A secondary swell came ashore and swept 61 people to their death. There's a memorial museum in Hilo - the Pacific Tsunami Museum - that commemorates that tsunami and others that have hit the Hawaiian Islands.
On April 1, 1946, another tsunami was generated by an earthquake in the same Aleutian Island area that spawned the Hilo tsunami 14 years later. Unfortunately, because of the day - April Fools Day - a number of people who heard the warnings of a tsunami thought it was a prank so they didn't heed the warnings. Unfortunately, a number of children at a school/day care center north of Hilo were swept away by the tsunami. Cindy and I just happened to visit this place on a day trip to Hilo. They have a memorial on the former site of the school that commemorates those children and teachers who lost their lives that day. One family lost five children.
So they take their tsunami's rather seriously in Hawaii. And this one was no exception.
I first heard about the earthquake in Chile when I turned on the TV when we got back to our hotel room at the Hilton Waikoloa Village after dinner on Friday evening. There was some mention of a possible tsunami and that was something they were going to monitor overnight. What was sort of ironic is that during our first trips around the Big Island, we would see the signs like what are at the top of this post. We sort of chuckled because of the somewhat comical nature of the signs. But we just never - ever - figured that we'd have to worry about a tsunami while we were in Hawaii.
The next morning, Cindy got up before sunrise to take our camera out to Buddha Point - a slab of land that stuck out into the ocean on our hotel resort's property. You could very easily see humpback whales surfacing and frolicking just off the coast. Cindy thought that was so cool and she wanted to get some pictures.
While she was out doing that, I woke up and turned on the TV just after 7 a.m. Each of the local stations on the television were having non-stop tsunami coverage. Now, we were on the Big Island of Hawaii and there are really no local television stations on the island. The local television stations for the whole state of Hawaii are based in Honolulu on Oahu. And to make matters even more confusing, three of the six local television stations - KGMB-TV, KHNL-TV and KFVE-TV - share local newscasts. So I could turn to any one of three stations and get the exact same information.
I could tell right away that my plans for the day would be altered by Mother Nature. My plans consisted of going up to a small village up the coast to have breakfast at a place that was recommended to us, then coming back to the hotel, grabbing a lounge chair by the ocean and reading one of the books I brought with me on vacation. They even had wait staff service who would bring you drinks or beers. I already had it planned out - a mai tai right off the bat, then a series of Kona Big Wave Golden Ales. I was on vacation and ready to "veg" out for the day.
The first reports coming in said that, overnight, buoys out in the Pacific between Chile and the Hawaiian Islands were reporting some massive swells. Some were reported as high as 9 meters (just under 30 feet). That's a big swell in any stretch of the imagination. Initially, they had the state of Hawaii under a tsunami watch, meaning that there could be a chance of some massive waves hitting the islands.
As tsunami waves fan out, they can level out and that's what forecasters at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center outside of Honolulu were predicting would happen. Forecasts of waves as high as 9 to 12 feet were to hit the Hilo area on the east side of the Big Island around 11 a.m. on Saturday morning. Suddenly, the tsunami watch became a tsunami warning.
About the time the local stations were beginning to announce a tsunami warning, Cindy came walking back into the room. I said, "Listen, I don't want to alarm you, but I guess there's a tsunami warning for the islands."
Well, I shouldn't have said anything because she immediately began to panic. "What's going on? When did this happen? What are we going to do? Do we have to get out of here? What do we pack?"
I explained to her that not only were we on the far side of the island, we were on the sixth floor of the hotel and that the hotel was built up on the lava rock base by about 15 feet above the ocean. But they kept talking on the local channels that all low lying areas around the Hawaiian Islands would have to be evacuated. I was sort of perplexed with all that as we were on the west side of the island and the waves were coming from the south and east. An expert on one of the local channels then spelled it out for me.
The Hawaiian Islands are all volcanic based land forms. When a tsunami hits one side of the island, the ensuing swells wrap around the islands because of the conical shape of the volcanoes whose base is well under the ocean. The expert said that the devastating waves can hit the east and south side of the islands, but the swells will envelope the rest of the shorelines around the islands due to the lack of a continental shelf on or near the islands. Hmm... OK. Well, it's gonna affect us, then.
By this time, the alarm system for the hotel is going off and the "message" light on our phone lights up. I call up the voice mailbox and the hotel has a recorded announcement alerting their guests that a tsunami warning has been issued and that everyone should evacuate the property. Well, I still didn't see any sense of urgency, considering we still had over 3 hours before the first wave hit Hilo. Besides, I was thinking it would be kind of cool to watch it come in from our balcony.
Cindy was still somewhat frantic, but I assured her that we'd have time to take showers, get dressed, grab what we needed for the day and go if we wanted. They were saying on TV that a large tsunami could have wicked swells for up to 10 hours after the first wave hits. That said, I was thinking that if the tsunami was even going to be 9 to 12 feet, it could be well after 8 p.m. before everything would settle down.
In the meantime, reports out of Hilo and Honolulu said that gas stations had begun to run out of gas, grocery stores were running out of food, and roads were clogged with evacuees. Cindy had settled down quite a bit and was even wondering if we could still get some breakfast at the hotel. I called to the breakfast restaurant at the hotel and the lady who answered the phone said it was closed. She said, "Everything in the hotel is now closed for the tsunami."
Well, I was thinking there was an outside chance we'd be able to stay. But with everything at the hotel closed, I thought I'd better ask if this was a mandatory evacuation. She said, "Oh, yes, sir. Everyone must evacuate the property."
I turned to Cindy and I said, "Well, now they're saying it's a mandatory evacuation. I guess we have to leave for sure, now."
Not long after that, the hotel's alarm goes off again. This time the message on the voice mail said that everyone MUST evacuate the property. In fact, as we left around 9:30, security details were going room to room making sure everyone was out, then programming the electronic locks on the doors so that people (or enterprising thieves) couldn't gain access to the rooms.
Before we left, I was getting e-mails and text messages from people who knew we are out in Hawaii wanting to know if we're safe. I decided to sit down and send out an e-mail to friends and family letting them know of the situation before we left.
The tram that went between our building and the main lobby was waiting for us as we got down to the ground floor. A hotel employee was telling people that they were going to evacuate people to an off-site area that would be safe in the event of a tsunami. Cindy said, "Do we have to do that?"
I said, "I'm not gonna be stuck in someplace with a bunch of strangers. No, we can drive up to Waimea."
Waimea is a quaint little ranching town of about 7,000 people in the "hills" region of northern Hawaii island (see map). Actually, it sort of reminded me of some of the small towns we encountered years ago when we traveled Northern California's wine region. It is also known as Kameula (the Hawaiian name for "Samuel", named after the father of John Parker, the first rancher in the area) and it's shown as that on some maps. However, the maps I bought out in Hawaii showed it as Waimea and all the towns signet and the locals called it Waimea. The town is about a 15 mile drive from our hotel and it sits just over 2500 feet in elevation. I figured that we'd have no problem up there.
As we left the hotel, I was sort of surprised by the lack of traffic. I guessed that we were probably part of the last stragglers getting away from the low-lying areas. We drove up to Waimea with no problem. However, when we got to town, it turned out that we weren't the only people who thought getting away to Waimea was a good idea. Turned out we were going to be surrounded by a lot of strangers where ever we went that day.
The main roads through town were packed. People were parking where they could and local officials opened up the school's soccer field for overflow parking. We were able to park along the main road into Waimea near where we wanted to eat breakfast. The place - Hawaiian Style Cafe - we had breakfast at three days prior on our way to Hilo. It's a great little place and the food was excellent. Be sure to look for my entry on the place in coming days.
It was a 45 minute wait - minimum - before we could get in. We decided to put our name in, then go across the street to a number of little shops that were teeming with evacuees. Cindy looked around at some of the shops while I returned e-mails, text messages and took phone calls from people back on the mainland wanting to know what was going on. There was wireless internet available in the shopping area and number of people were on line with their laptops keeping up with information.
Before we left for Hawaii, Cindy chastised me for wanting to take my notebook computer with us. "You're just gonna sit on-line the whole time we're there," she said. I promised her I wouldn't. (And I didn't - other than trying to find places to eat or go see.) However, when we were in Waimea and seeing all the people with their laptops getting information on the tsunami, her tone was completely different.
"Why didn't you bring your lap top with us," she asked.
I said, "Geez, Cindy! You didn't want me to bring the thing with us to Hawaii. Now you're wondering why I didn't bring it with us to Waimea!" I couldn't win...
After about a half-hour, I went back across the street and checked on our status. It would be about 10 minutes before we could get in, so I went back and told Cindy we needed to go back to the restaurant. If we weren't there when our names got called, we'd lose our place in line. And the line was still growing by 10:30.
In the meantime, forecasters at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center on Oahu had pushed back the time the first wave was to hit the island to about 11:30. A buoy about 100 miles south and east of Hilo reported another large swell of 9 meters just before 11 a.m. Oh, man. This was gonna be a big one, we thought.
We finally got into Hawaiian Style Cafe around 10:45 a.m. We sat at the counter and ordered up our food. Seated next to us was a couple from the north suburbs of Chicago. They, too, had to get out of their hotel which happened to be the Marriott hotel next to our hotel in the Waikoloa Village resort area. Cindy asked them what procedures that hotel went through and the guy said, "They came around to each of the rooms and told people that they needed to leave the property. They said they had an area where people could go to if they didn't have transportation out of the facility. I asked, 'Can we leave if we have a car?' They said, 'Sure!' In fact, I think that's what they were hoping that most of the people would do."
But before they left, they were asked to fill up their tub with water. "They told us that if the water system went out, that would be the only fresh water we'd have."
I said, "Well, they certainly didn't tell us to do that at our hotel!"
After we finished breakfast, it was getting close to the time the first wave was supposed to hit Hilo. I got back into the car and turned on the Hilo radio station I was listening to on our way up to Waimea. It was off the air. I thought, "Uh oh. That's not good."
Information around Waimea was sporadic as to what was happening. I ended up calling my friend, Scott Schroeder, back in the Quad Cities to find out if he knew of anything. (How strange is that? I had to call back 4000 miles to find out what it was going on in Hawaii.) Scott said that he was watching a stream of KITV out of Honolulu and he said, "Well, I don't think anything has happened. The time frame for the first waves to hit the island has passed, and they're not getting any reports of any big waves."
Cindy and I ended up going to a farmer's market in Waimea to pass the time. As we were looking at the different booths, reports started coming in that the tidal wave was not much of a big deal. It was close to 12:30 p.m. when we started to hear the same thing from different people. Hilo was still there, no big waves have hit the island and it appeared the tsunami threat had passed.
We drove around Waimea for a bit listening to a couple people talk about the situation on a Hawaiian public radio station - mainly because we couldn't get any information from any other station. They were all playing music like it was a normal day in paradise. The two people on the station were sort of confused by what was going on. They were getting reports that the largest wave to hit Hilo was about 2.8 feet - considerably less than the 9 to 12 foot waves predicted by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. They said that there was no information from Hawaii Civil Defense or from any of the law agencies regarding whether or not the danger had passed. The tsunami warning, as far as they knew, was still in effect.
I said to Cindy, "This is ridiculous. Nothing's happened. Let's go back down to the hotel to see if we can get back in."
As we drove down out of the hills, we came to the intersection that would take us back down to our hotel. Police had the road to the little village we were going to go to earlier in the day still closed off. But the main highway south toward our hotel was open.
When we got to the entrance of the hotel, police still had the entrance blocked off. Dozens of cars were lined up along both sides of the road waiting to get back in. We decided to drive down the road about six miles to a scenic overlook to wait out the time.
The parking lot of the scenic overlook was full of cars and we were able to squeeze into a spot. We got out and sat on a stone wall that overlooked the black lava fields and out into the Pacific Ocean. A local family had a boom box playing music. It was sort of a party atmosphere in the parking lot.
Suddenly at 1:45, people began to pack up their things, got in their cars or trucks and drove off. I said, "Hmm... Maybe those people know something that we don't know..." Cindy suggested we get back into the car and drive back to the hotel. Sure enough, when we got to the entrance by the highway, the barricades were down and the cops were gone. We drove onto the property and went to the hotel.
As we were driving near the hotel, the guy on the public radio station came on and said the tsunami warning was rescinded at 1:38 p.m. Everything was slowly getting back to normal.
By the time we got to the hotel, valet parking was a madhouse. All these people were coming back and they had a skeleton crew of people working at the hotel. They just told us to leave our car and they'd deal with it later.
The tram wasn't working, so we walked back to our room - about a 10 minute walk from the lobby. When we got up to our floor, the hotel's security staff was going around and reprogramming the doors to allow people to get back into their rooms. We tried our door and got right in. I went out on the balcony, checked to see what was going on out near the ocean and Cindy said, "Well, I'm gonna change into my bathing suit and head outside."
I sent a quick e-mail out to friends and family letting them know that we were safely back at the hotel and the tsunami warning was canceled. We went out and found a double lounge chair. I got comfy and began to read my book. The only problem is that the bar was closed - the hotel sent a lot of people home thinking this was going to be a massive tidal wave and getting them to come back proved to be quite a chore.
And that was it. I told you it was pretty anti-climactic. Here's a picture of the cover of the West Hawaii Today newspaper on Sunday morning that talked about the tsunami that wasn't, with an accompanying article talking about how they evacuated 1500 people from our hotel. I didn't think they had even half that amount of people on the property, to tell you the truth. All in all, I think they overly erred on the side of caution in regard to this tsunami. But as I said earlier, Hawaiians remember some big ones in the past and they count themselves as lucky this time.