Wednesday | July 26, 2017
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USCG sets tsunami safety zones

The U.S. Coast Guard is establishing permanent safety zones at two Hawaii Island commercial harbors to expedite evacuation in the event a tsunami warning is issued.

Kawaihae and Hilo harbors are among the nine Hawaii commercial harbors that will have established permanent safety zones prohibiting vessels from entering or leaving commercial harbors when a tsunami warning is issued by state Civil Defense, said Lt. Cmdr. Scott O. Whaley, with the U.S. Coast Guard 14th District in Honolulu.

The rule, which includes provisions for federal civil and criminal penalties if violated, goes into effect Nov. 25. It was published in the Oct. 24 Federal Register, which lists various federal agency regulations, proposed rules and public notices, executive orders, proclamations and other presidential documents.

The permanent safety zones will be enforced only when a tsunami warning is issued by the state Civil Defense, Whaley said. The Coast Guard Captain of the Port, Honolulu will then issue an order to evacuate any or all of the nine harbors. A written notice will be issued, as well as a radio broadcast aired to notify mariners.

Commercial vessels must then evacuate the harbor, transit seaward beyond the 300-foot, 50-fathom, curve and remain outside the safety zones. At Kawaihae Harbor, the established safety zones include all waters immediately adjacent to commercial piers one and two, and extending out to 100 yards. At Hilo Harbor, the zones include all waters immediately adjacent to commercial piers one and two, extending out to 100 yards.

Once the zones are activated, according to the Coast Guard, “no person or vessel may enter or remain in the safety zone except for support vessels, support personnel and other vessels authorized by the Captain of the Port, Honolulu.”

Violators of the rule would be subject to federal civil and criminal penalties contained in 33 U.S. Code 1232, Whaley said. If found to have “willfully and knowingly” violated the rule, a person can be convicted of a class D felony, which carries a minimum five years and no more than 10 years incarceration. Civil penalties can reach a maximum $25,000, according to U.S. Code.

The commercial harbors will remain closed until the Captain of the Port, Honolulu lifts the order, which will occur only after the tsunami warning has been downgraded and assessments completed. Coast Guard boats will be on scene during evacuations to enforce the zones, as well as to provide direction to boaters.

The Coast Guard sought the rule, which it proposed in May, more out of precaution than reaction to how previous tsunami warnings were handled at the commercial harbors, Whaley said. He did note, however, that there were some reports of “chaotic” behavior, as well as “fighting to get out and then in” at commercial harbors when the warning was issued for the March 11, 2011, tsunami.

“Hopefully, this will create a more organized effort if a tsunami warning was issued,” he said Tuesday. “It will make it a lot more orderly having people out and staying offshore.”

The Coast Guard also hopes that by evacuating the commercial harbors there will be less damage to vessels and ports, as well as blockage of harbor ways should a tsunami hit. That will equate to a quicker reopening of the facility once all required assessments are complete, Whaley said.

Currently, when a tsunami warning is issued, the Captain of the Port issues an evacuation and vessels must leave the harbor, Whaley said. The new rule, in addition to mandating evacuation, provides a predetermined plan of action and gives the Coast Guard the ability to subject violators to both civil and criminal penalties.

The Coast Guard met with various mariners, many of whom requested having the rule in writing, as well as having penalties if violated, boards, advisories and commissions before proposing the rule on May 17 in the Federal Register, Whaley said. No public meeting was held. One comment was received asking the Coast Guard to define boundaries using latitudinal and longitudinal data, which were subsequently added.

The other harbors that fall under the permanent safety zones are Nanawiliwili Harbor and Port Allen on Kauai; Honolulu Harbor and Barber’s Point Harbor on Oahu; Kaunakakai Harbor on Molokai; Kaumalapau Harbor on Lanai; and Kahului Harbor on Maui.

Both the final rule and May 17 proposal by the Coast Guard can be read by visiting, and entering into the search area, “USCG-2013-0021.”