Preparation, prior tsunami responses aided Saturday’s efforts


Despite the short tsunami warning Saturday, effective disaster plans, well-rehearsed drills, prior responses and teamwork kept police, fire and county officials on top of the situation, said Assistant Police Chief Marshall Kanehailua.

Hours after a 7.7-magnitude earthquake rocked British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands Saturday, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning shortly before 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The warning predicted the first wave’s arrival to be about three hours later, stated all coastal areas were likely to be hit and initiated evacuation efforts.

“Because we have done this recently and successfully, from conducting tsunami responses in 2010 and last year to testing our response during county-wide tsunami warning exercises, everyone knew exactly what to do quickly, confidently and safely,” Kanehailua said. “Some may say the most astonishing thing was how a great number of people came together in such a short period of time. But what sticks out to me as an accomplishment is the efficiency with which our personnel was activated and worked smoothly together. For the most part, everything went well without any major problems. The responding personnel acted top-notched and the public’s cooperation is appreciated.”

Mayor Billy Kenoi was proud of the “very well-managed, rapid and respectful response” by the roughly 700 county employees activated and the public. He said the estimated total of activated personnel includes police, fire, emergency crews, and Public Works and Parks and Recreation staff.

Kenoi mentioned the three county helicopters, as well as the Civil Air Patrol, which did rounds around the island, alerting people in low-lying areas, beach parks and valleys to seek higher ground. He expressed gratitude for the state and county partnership, which he also credited for Saturday’s smooth handling of situation.

Kenoi said the first wave was scheduled to hit the state around 10:28 p.m. Saturday, everyone in Hawaii County was evacuated safely from these areas of concern by 10:05 p.m., and at least 800 people were housed securely in 17 shelters across the island.

While there were some technical difficulties, Kenoi noted there were no reports of damages or injuries as of press time Sunday.

Kanehailua and Kenoi said county officials will have a debriefing today to discuss accomplishments, challenges and improvements because there are always lessons to be learned. Two issues they are planning to review closely to avoid repeating again are “the glitch” with a few sirens and the initial spread of contradictory information.

Though most sirens began blaring islandwide Saturday, less than a handful of sirens in East Hawaii did not initially go off with the automatic mass notification system. However, county officials were able to fix the problem by manually activating the sirens in each area, and all the sirens were sounded by 9:10 p.m., Kenoi said.

Confusion arose because of contradictory information, stating there was no threat to Hawaii, was originally broadcasted and spread on the radio and through social media. County officials will discuss how to deal with such conflicting messages, Kanehailua said.

A major benefit to the coordination was the Police Department’s use of private subsidized cars, which allowed for a quick widespread action from police officers who could respond wherever they were, as well as get updates and assignments without having to go to a command post first, Kanehailua said.

One thing Kailua-Kona resident Rick Thompson said he hopes county officials discuss is the “appalling lack of response by The American Red Cross” at the West Hawaii Civic Center, where approximately 350 people were sheltered. He claimed many were left outside in the cold and on the grass. Though, he added, coffee was offered by county employees.

Thompson, who has 30 years of disaster service in Florida and Kentucky as a Red Cross and CAP volunteer, helped transport resort guests, some of whom have never been in hazard situations, to the shelter. He was struck by the lack of relief given and was “completely pissed off” when told Red Cross does not man the shelters until after a disaster strikes.

Besides emergency response, his understanding of Red Cross is that it’s also responsible for preparedness and helps with management during disasters and threat situations. He said the nonprofit humanitarian organization’s duty includes helping displaced residents and visitors cope and feel comfortable at shelters, which should provide not just temporary housing, but cots, blankets, meals and medical care — all of which he claimed was absent Saturday.

Thompson also said some people at the shelter may have special needs that require extra support and stressed those affected couldn’t return home or to their hotels until after 1 a.m. Sunday. After downgrading the warning to an advisory, state officials canceled the advisory shortly before 4 a.m. after anticipated waves rolled in lower than expected. Beaches and harbors later reopened around 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

Thompson thinks he’s not alone in his concerns and suggested the county try to rally the community to help fulfill these needs next time.

Coralie Chun Matayoshi, chief executive officer of the Red Cross Hawaii State Chapter, could not be reached for comment.

Kenoi said West Hawaii Today’s inquiry about shelter conditions at West Hawaii Civic Center was the first time he had heard that complaint. He promised his staff would look into possible ways to better support those impacted.