Looking For the Wave: Our Experience with Hawaii's 2010 Tsunami Alert, by An Oregonian

Monday, Feb 21, 2011

Here on the Oregon coast we have included precautions for a Tsunami in our emergency preparations.  This last spring while on vacation on the north shore of Oahu we experienced some valuable lessons when the Tsunami alert was raised after the earthquake in Chile.  This experience has helped us and hopefully will provide food for thought for others.

We have family living on the north shore of Oahu, in Laie that we were staying with during our trip.  About 4am in the morning as I was sleeping on the porch, a woman knocked on the door to inform the family of the earthquake in Chile, and that a Tsunami warning had been issued for the islands.  Very few details were known, and no information on when the wave might arrive.  No alarms in the town were sounded, and most of the community didn’t hear any word.  Most communication was received word-of-mouth, since very few were listening to the media that morning.  Our family was notified by a friend from church whose husband worked for BYU-Hawaii. 

At first, the family was a little confused as to what to do.  Food and water were on hand, but no one knew if we would be allowed to drive to higher ground, or if we would be required to walk.  Our decision on what to take with us would have changed dramatically if we had to walk and carry our gear.  Higher ground was about 400 yards away, but with the jungle and farmland around, most of Laie would be concentrated a few areas.  The family’s original plan was to drive ~10 miles to a camp they frequented, so we quickly woke up their 5 children, loaded food and water into the family’s truck, made contact with friends and the 6 college students living in the first floor of the house, and were ready to leave in 20 minutes.  Having 4 adults to help with the readiness made a big difference.  Not being familiar with where the family stored their supplies made it a bit more difficult, but since my wife and I were visiting, we were already packed with our necessities.  We simply had to refill our water bottles, double-check our gear, and help with the little ones.

Now we were ready to leave by 4:30 a.m., however we also took the time to contact reliable sources of information to confirm details.  We didn’t want to run off in the dark without more of the story.  Internet and all communications were available, so we quickly got enough information to feel safe about staying home until about 7:30 a.m., when it would be light out.  This gave us a lot of time to review our status, notify friends and neighbors, and also to let family back home on the mainland that we were okay and that we had a plan.  We gave them all details to our plans.

By 7:30, there was more activity in the neighborhood, and most everyone in the community was notified.  Official media reports were publishing details, and at 8 a.m. the first community alarm went off.  We really appreciated the fact that personal networks notified us 4 hours before the first ‘public’ warning came in a form that everyone would know of.

Finally, we were off to higher ground.  The morning was beautiful and clear – already warm for us mainlanders.  As we were leaving town, we noticed a few police cars making patrols, and talked with neighbors who had already seen and reported some looting and mischief.  The roads were not busy, and many of the locals had reported to others that they were staying home to stick it out.  They didn’t want to leave their home.  A long line of about 12-15 cars had formed at the only local gas station.  There was no real indicator that anything abnormal was going on in paradise.  We were very glad we had more than half a tank of gas and that we wouldn’t be traveling far.

The main highways around Oahu all run on the periphery of the island.  Beautiful to drive along the water’s edge, but as we made our way to higher ground, we realized if a wave does much damage to that same waterfront highway, getting home again might be impossible for days.  Before we went far from home, we pulled over, thought it through, and decided on a new location – less than a mile from home.  This was one of the most important learning’s from our experience.  Bugging out must take into account getting back.

Our new location took us to a large ranch owned by a local church that the family was familiar with.  The grounds keeper had already opened up the property for the community to gather in and we easily found a good spot in an open field with 80 other vehicles and families.  It was a big, open field safely in the hills with a lookout to the ocean about 500 yards up the hill.

After parking we setup camp.  Our three most valuable items (besides food and water) were our canopy, lawn chairs, and board games.  The tropical weather quickly turned hot, and without the shade of the canopy, we would have been miserable.  Others without cover ducked under shade trees, or joined the bigger groups who were assembling large party canopies.  Even with shade, we went through water quickly.  The open field was great for playing catch and wandering around.  All the teenagers were busy texting and calling friends – without the phones the boredom would have been difficult.

First real emergency – the teenagers needed a bathroom.  For the boys, this wasn’t an issue with all of the trees and brush around the field.  For the women, it was a bigger concern.  The four of them went into the woods together and eventually found a spot secluded “enough” to be comfortable.  They reported many small groups and individuals roaming the trees looking for that elusive seclusion.  A small popup latrine or some other facility to provide privacy would have been very valuable to the group.  The hand wipes became very valuable at this point too – and are worth mentioning. After about an hour, most of the men were either asleep or were antsy to go back into town to get more stuff.  It was about 11am at this point, and all media reports were that we should expect the wave(s) to hit at 1pm.  We felt we had enough time and the risk was low that we decided to give it a go.  We took the pickup the three miles back into Laie, and loaded up lawn chairs, a full-size propane barbeque grill, and lots of food for dinner out of the freezer.  Extra water and toilet paper were also gathered.  It was interesting that more police patrol cars were in the neighborhoods, and many residents slowly going about their day.  We made several stops to pickup stuff for friends and neighbors, and to make sure surf boards, bikes, and other stuff was up on the second floor porches of all the homes we visited.  We were back on higher ground with the grill hot by 11:30 a.m.

The grill was a big hit, but quickly brought dozens of hungry kids and teenagers around, so we turned it off before cooking any food to avoid any disturbances.  We didn’t have nearly enough food to go around, and in the local culture it would have been rude not to invite even casual acquaintances to eat with us.  So we stuck to snacks we had on hand, and loaned out the grill to another large family group to use.

Here’s an interesting side-story regarding first aid.  About a dozen of the local boys, about 9 years old, spent their free-time catching scorpions.  They showed us a small water bottle with three of them inside.  A great diversion for the boys, but my thought was: “what if one of the boys was stung?”  The parents would have their hands full with a miserable child and little way to assist.  Having a remedy for bee or scorpion stings would be a valuable ingredient in an emergency first aid pack. Finally, as 1 pm came closer everyone made their way to a lookout point to watch for the wave.  It was hot now, and water was soon used up.  At least 150 of us sat around a single radio waiting for updates and passing the latest rumors.  The media had less information than many of the locals with families on the Big Island, where the wave was to hit first.  The public media was not much help.  Nothing was seen of note down in the ocean, other than a couple folks out surfing near Turtle Cove. 

Finally, when 1:30 p.m. came without any noticeable change in the seas, the media reported that 2 p.m. was the likely time.  Hilo on the Big Island hadn’t seen any significant wave show up, and many folks around us were ready to head home.

The men of our group loaded up the heavy gear and headed down to home by 1:45 p.m.  After unloading, about 2 p.m. the police gave us an “all clear” and we let the women know to bring the children down [from the heights]. We were all very glad that nothing significant had happened.  We had a great day in the hills with very little inconvenience.  The barbeque was the most disappointing part of the day.  The women had planned to spend the day at the Aloha Stadium Market and were disappointed they missed out on that, but we husbands figured the tsunami saved us several hundreds of dollars in canceling that plan.  We all learned some valuable lessons – including the younger children, and it was a great opportunity to better prepare for the next event.  In terms of gear, the only additional items we would recommend for a short “bug out” like this would be handheld [MURS or GMRS] radios, some form of privacy (tent, tarp, etc), and more to read. 

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