Tardy texting Civil defense electonic alert system sends messages late


Big Islanders using the county Civil Defense’s mass emergency notification system on Saturday received no notice of a tsunami warning until after 8:45 p.m. – nearly two hours after the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center told residents to anticipate a tsunami.

Mayor Billy Kenoi on Tuesday said the delay was caused when Civil Defense had problems relaying information. He said Civil Defense Administrator Ben Fuata was driving from Kona and was not at the Hilo emergency operations center when the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued the 7:09 p.m. tsunami warning.

“There were some challenges in our communications, but our EOC was up and running in East and West Hawaii,” Kenoi said, adding another Civil Defense staff member was handling emergency efforts. “Even though Ben Fuata wasn’t there, our chiefs were there, and we immediately moved toward an islandwide evacuation.”

He commended first responders, county staff and the public for their effort evacuating all coastal inundation zones by 10:05 p.m. He also noted the importance media and social networks played by spreading information that night.

“In spite of those challenges that were experienced, there were no problems with evacuations,” he said. “But during every exercise and response, there are things to be learned.”

Residents who use the Hawaii County Civil Defense mass emergency notification system, CityWatch, received their first text message notification of the upgrade to a warning between 8:49 p.m. and 9:25 p.m. from two different Texas phone numbers. The warning was issued by the center at 7:09 p.m. and sirens began blaring around 8:40 p.m.

Between 7:06 p.m. and 7:49 p.m., residents were receiving texts from the agency that no tsunami was predicted, though some coastal water fluctuations were possible.

Those using email to receive notification got their first messages around 6:30 p.m. that no tsunami was expected. At 9:48 p.m. an email went out notifying residents of the tsunami warning – just 40 minutes before the first waves were expected to hit Hawaii Island around 10:30 p.m.

Kenoi said the county has discussed the issue and is working to ensure the county does not face similar issues in a subsequent tsunami evacuation.

“Civil Defense is working on making sure it will be more timely and responsive,” he said about the plans.

Calls to Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Ben Fuata’s office and cellphone were not returned as of press time Tuesday.

Hawaii Police Department Assistant Chief Marshall Kanehailua, who oversees emergency operations for the police department, said officers were activated by 7:15 p.m. He initially heard the warning over FM radio before confirming the warning with dispatchers, who were already aware of the notice. All officers were active when warning sirens were going off, he said.

He said that outside the department there was confusion surrounding the tsunami and what actions to take after the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued two notices that no tsunami was expected and later a warning that a tsunami could hit at 10:28 p.m. He declined to comment further on the confusion.

“We (police) were already activated and at the (emergency operations center) in line with protocol,” he said.

The delay in getting messages to the public was likely not caused by CityWatch, said Joe Little, that company’s director of notifications. He estimated 7,000 Hawaii subscribers were sent messages that night at a rate between three and five messages per second.

He said the company processed the messages at the above normal rate as soon as receiving the initial notice from Hawaii County Civil Defense. Cellphone carriers could have also delayed the messages.

Little also said the company will begin upgrading its system in the coming weeks to allow approximately 30 messages to be sent per second.