Hawaii Acknowledges Tsunami Warning Deficiencies

November 2, 2006

Hawaii’s tsunami warning system has serious deficiencies in reliability and coverage area, according to state emergency officials.

About 100 of the tsunami sirens don’t have emergency backup power, meaning they wouldn’t make a sound if an earthquake caused widespread blackouts, officials said.

In addition, at least 148 more sirens are needed to provide full statewide coverage.

It would take more than seven years and nearly $19 million to upgrade the system, said George Burnett, telecommunications officer at state Civil Defense.

Big Island residents who live in inundation zones should head to higher ground the moment they feel an earthquake’s impact, said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. It might already be too late by the time they hear the sirens go off.

But the sirens should provide some warning for residents on Kauai, Oahu and Maui, where residents might have a few minutes to evacuate before a tsunami struck.

“Unfortunately, the bad news in this is the shaking that you felt Oct. 15 on Oahu is actually stronger than the shaking you are likely to feel from an earthquake that generates a tsunami,” Fryer said.

Officials wouldn’t say which individual communities aren’t covered by the tsunami warning system, saying only that 47 sirens are needed on Oahu, 38 on Maui, 52 on the Big Island and 11 on Kauai.

The emergency sirens were instituted after a 1946 tsunami caused widespread destruction in Hilo.

When they go off, residents are supposed to turn on their radios or TVs for updates.

Emergency workers say they got worried when people desperately called radio stations after the Oct. 15 earthquakes to ask why the sirens didn’t go off.

“If they are calling four hours later and asking if there’s any chance of a tsunami, that shows that they haven’t been properly educated,” said Dan Walker, a tsunami adviser to the Oahu Civil Defense Agency. “If we had a significant tsunami — even a highly localized tsunami in the Kailua-Kona area — people did not respond properly. There would have been many lives lost.”

The state is planning to have all schools statewide do earthquake drills beginning in December, said Glen Tatsuno, head of safety and security for the Department of Education.

Also, a group will make recommendations to the state by January about how it could improve alert systems and improve public education.

“We got a wake-up call,” Tatsuno said. “If a big earthquake came, we are not going to be exempt.”

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