Surviving tsunamis: What can we learn from Hawai’i?

A Visit to the Former “Tsunami Capital”

The sign below an exhibit at the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo, Hawai’i, claims that Hilo is “the tsunami capital of the world.”  Dr George D. Curtis, the scientific advisor to the museum, covered that sign with his hand and said quietly, “now, we’ll have to change that.”  That is just one of the things that will have to change in the aftermath of the December 26th Indian Ocean tsunami if the 200,000 lives that were lost are to have meaning.

I contacted Curtis, physicist and tsunami researcher, upon reading an interview he had given to the New York Times, where he had said: “Unless you have a good system for spreading an authentic warning and getting a quick response, the technology is not going to help you much.“  The outcome of the exchange was that I and a colleague took a 40-minute plane ride from Honolulu to Hilo on the Big Island of Hawai’i to meet Curtis.  Our first stop was not the tsunami museum and our conversation was mostly not about tsunamis.  He took us from the airport to the squat, bunker-like building located well away from the water that housed the Civil Defense Emergency Operations Center of the Big Island.  Wendell Hatada, the executive assistant to the Mayor, the highest civilian authority on the island, came by to explain things to the visitor from Sri Lanka.  Curtis had come to the Big Island, a beautiful, slow-paced place, to retire after an active career in university teaching and research at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa (suburb of Honolulu) and elsewhere, but had not really managed to retire.  He is the Voluntary Tsunami Advisor to the County of Hawai’i Civil Defense and Scientific Advisor to the Pacific Tsunami Museum, and he teaches at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo while also advising a number of post-graduate students at the Manoa campus.  I am sure there are many other civic initiatives that benefit from his time.

The island of Hawai’i, also known as the Big Island, is one of the most geologically active places on earth.  Five volcanoes, including Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea and Kilauea, adorn it.  Kilauea is active; the other two are snow covered and house major scientific research facilities.  Streams of lava have been flowing down from Kilauea for the past twenty years and adding acres of new land to the Big Island through a spectacular process of hot lava meeting cold ocean.  The Big Island is a green and stunningly beautiful place.  It has few beaches, mostly facing the ocean with high cliffs of volcanic rock.  The only vulnerabilities are the enormous “cracks” through which the streams flow down.

Unlike the lava flows which are manifestations of Goddess Pele, the tsunami is a killer.  It comes suddenly and with violent force.  The casualties that anyone in Hilo can reel off—159 in 1946; 61 in 1960; 2 in 1975—are dwarfed by the horrendous and yet incomplete casualty count of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but they have changed the institutions of government in Hawai’i.  One hopes that similar beneficial changes will occur in the countries battered by the Indian Ocean killer wave.

Emergency Operations

The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of the Civil Defense Building was where we were briefed.  It is a neat and organized room with a lot of graphic information up on the walls.  As the coordinator, Lanny Nakano, said, “We all have work to do; there is no time to be explaining things to newcomers.  The boards give the information needed for the job.”  Two of the four sides were layered with movable display boards that the staff kept pulling out at various points in the conversation:  evacuation plans; situation reports for different kinds of disasters with space left for new entries; maps with magnetic markers, etc.  The third side was full of communication equipment from different kinds of government organizations.  The desks were all equipped with phones, ordinary as well as dedicated lines.

When a disaster situation is identified (generally the duty person’s pager is the signal; but all staff are under instructions to activate the process even on the basis of phone calls received or media reports), the disaster managers come to the EOC.  As they come in, each has duties.  Some verify the information; others start calling designated persons using calling sheets.  They use conventional phone lines but also have access to police and other specialized communication systems through consoles within the EOC.  Each phone call triggers additional pre-assigned calls; a cascade of calls is triggered by the EOC.  The result is that all the key actors, ranging from the police to the highways department to the phone company, are all physically located in one place during the crisis.  And everyone who comes has to be a decision maker—no checking back with superiors is allowed.  All this is backed up by laws that allow the various specific regulations to be issued and by a strong-willed Mayor whose last job was that of Civil Defense Administrator.  The Mayor also convenes periodic workshops to ensure that everyone is focused and the information on file is current.  The most important meeting is at the start of the hurricane season.  The emphasis, as the managers repeated several times, was on educating and preparing officials.

Under the regulations, each hotel has to prepare and file an emergency management plan, a thick document that specifies actions that will be taken for different kinds of disasters.  The keys are assignment of responsibilities and the preparation of plans.  According to the disaster management professionals in Hilo, the focus must be on responsible persons at each location (government as well as private sector).  When the hotel management is aware of the dangers and is prepared to take the appropriate precautions, lives will be saved.  They allow hotels to be built in scenic spots on the coast and they do not subject tourists to daily lectures.  But the hotel staff is fully trained and ready to act.  Plans are made for all contingencies.

It was only when we came to the evacuation plans that tsunamis came up.  Curtis and his team had mapped out the areas that were affected by the previous big tsunamis (something that won’t be too difficult if done quickly in Sri Lanka).  Based on this historical information and many additional analyses, the Civil Defense people had demarcated  evacuation zones for all the major Hawai`i islands.  In some parts of this island such as Hilo City, which faces the Hilo Bay and is quite low-lying with a stream flowing down, the evacuation zones are quite large; in other places (high ground) they do not cover any settlements at all.  The telephone directory for each island contains specific instructions on evacuation, with maps.  The relevant government agencies are prepared to set up manned barricades at specific intersections to close off the vulnerable areas.

In Hawai’i, they don’t talk about tsunamis in general.  There are local tsunamis and teletsunamis.  The former are rare but can be the most dangerous.  As the name suggests, they are local in origin:  a local earthquake; a local undersea landslide; a huge chunk of lava rock falling into the sea, in each case displacing a large amount of water that comes barreling along to the shore within minutes or less, more or less like what hit Banda Aceh.  “Your feet are the signal,” said Hatada.  “You feel the earthquake and you run for high ground.”

But even with these instant killers, the EOC has plans.  They have mapped out how long it will take for a local tsunami to get from one part of the island to another.  Being a much smaller island than Sri Lanka, they do not have hours like we had, but even the minutes of warning that they can give, they will give efficiently and promptly.  At the museum we were educated on the physics of tsunami “wrapping” whereby areas on the side of an island opposite to the site of the first hit still get destroyed, like the west coast of Sri Lanka.  The tsunami in shallow water slows down, but the rest of the wave keeps moving fast, causing the whole thing to keep turning.

With all disasters that allow for some kind of warning, like teletsunamis, the kind hit Sri Lanka, the EOC issues disaster watches and disaster warnings.  The watch is an alert that uses pre-approved language that is read out on the media channels.  It does not require specific action; simply tells citizens to be alert.  Warnings are issued when there is evidence that a danger exists.  There are different kinds of watches and warnings, depending on the disaster.  Each watch and warning announcement triggers specific types of actions on the part of the emergency managers.  Everything is pre-planned: there are checklists, and protocols and procedures.  Many a time the actions have been rehearsed in trial conditions.  But in a place like the Big Island there’s really no need for too many trials.  While we were at the EOC the boards were not blank.  Beaches were being closed because of high surf.  Dealing professionally with small events is the best preparation for the big ones.  In the case of Sri Lanka, we must deal well with cyclones to be ready for tsunamis.

Teletsunamis and the place that warns of them

The Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated our coastline was a teletsunami, a massive displacement of water carrying enormous amounts of energy that travels great distances.  While the civil defense officials at Hilo were very well informed of teletsunamis and what they can do, they rely on the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), located in Ewa Beach, a 45 minute taxi ride from Waikiki, the tourist heart of Honolulu on Oahu Island.  The geophysicists at PTWC are perhaps the world’s best experts on this subject.  I and Peter Anderson, the disaster communication expert who is helping design a disaster warning system for Sri Lanka, were briefed on the work of the PTWC by Dr Stuart Weinstein and Dr Barry Hirshorn, the two people who were on watch duty when the Great Earthquake off Sumatra Island occurred.  It is worth noting that designation.  This was a Great Earthquake, second only to the Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960, by current calculations.  When all the data come in and is analyzed, it may, according to Weinstein, prove to be the largest recorded earthquake ever.  Just to give a flavor of how big this was, he talked about the equipment getting saturated:  Normally the duration of an earthquake is less than 250 seconds; but this one lasted for over 500 seconds (more than eight minutes).  The shaking was so intense, says Weinstein, the earth has not stopped reverberating yet.

He seemed to like an analogy I had used in a media interview: determining the magnitude of an earthquake is not like sticking a thermometer in someone’s mouth and taking the temperature; it is complex science that involves judgment.  Even after you know the magnitude of the earthquake, you have to make another judgment about the likelihood of a tsunami.  For people like Weinstein, precision is not the objective; the objective is to warn the people in Hawai`i and around the Pacific  if tons of water are barreling their way.  They do this on the basis of the first data that comes in, historical data, and judgment.  With all the money that’s likely to be poured into this science in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, they are likely to get better data and fast computer analysis but there is no likelihood that judgment can be made redundant.

The threshold indicator is a 7.5 magnitude on the Richter scale (logarithmic scale, so the decimals mean a lot once you’re in this range).  The first readings from the Sumatra earthquake gave a reading of less than 8, but as the data kept flowing in, they knew it was a big one.  How does one know these things, I asked?   It’s old fashioned triangulation; multiple sites reporting data on a spectrum of frequencies.  Cocos Island to the south of the epicenter had been a key source.  It’s probable that even the US Geological Survey seismometer in Pallekale  and several others contributed to the analysis.  Talk to Weinstein and Hirshorn , and you realize how much you need to know:  p waves that take short cuts through the core of the earth; surface waves that need to take the long route over the earth’s surface; mantle waves; pre-quake oscillations.  Bottom line was that these guys were issuing the first bulletin pretty much before the earth stopped shaking in the Andaman sea:  0059 GMT (0659 SLT) plus 500 seconds for the earthquake means 0107 GMT (0707 SLT); their first bulletin was out by 0114 GMT (0714 SLT).  The surface waves had not come in yet.  They were telling the people up and down the Pacific: something has happened, but no danger to you.  By 0204 GMT (0804 SLT), based on additional data, they issued the second bulletin, warning of a tsunamis near the epicenter of the Sumatra quake; but was anyone listening in Asia?  By this time Banda Aceh was destroyed; first the buildings fell down and then the waves came in.  Could anyone have saved the people of Banda Aceh or warned us?  Weinstein says the seismologists in Indonesia are pretty sharp people and should have known what was going on.  Could they have warned the people of Aceh?  Weinstein and Hirshorn knew it was a teletsunami for sure only after the water had passed Sri Lanka and the Maldives, based on seismic data plus news reports.

The PTWC is a small building; very small but packed with equipment.  Redundancy is the watchword here; these people still use telex.  Everything is backed up and backed up once again; Hirshorn wears not one, but two pagers.  On the notice board is a chart showing how their response time has increased over the past few years; and a clipping about Tilly, the little girl who remembered the signs of a tsunami and saved lives in Thailand.  In the middle of the explanation Hirshorn tells me “I’ve heard so much about Sri Lanka; I got friends who love the place.  I’m so sorry what happened to you.”  These are top-of-the-line scientists but good human beings too.  They didn’t get much sleep in the days after the 26th of December, but they wish they then had all the telephone numbers they now have:  the Sri Lanka Navy is now in their little phone book; the people who could not make a call to the radio and TV stations in Colombo that the sea was coming in on the east coast are now calling Ewa Beach regularly.

I ask about the value of an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning Center.  Ewa Beach had been primarily a warning center just for Hawai’i, until the Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960.  The damage was so intense (140 people died in Japan a full 24 hours after the quake) that everybody decided they needed a regional center and upgraded Ewa Beach so that it is now three things:  tsunami warning center for Hawai’i, for the United States (and its military) and for the Pacific Region.  Given the sophistication of the equipment that’s automated and telemetric, these guys can do the job for the whole world.  But then politics matters.  There will probably be an Indian Ocean TWC and an Atlantic Ocean TWC.  Hawai’i is logical for the Pacific; it’s right in the middle and in the path of any tsunami generated anywhere in the Pacific Basin.  I say Maldives.  Don’t put it in the Maldives, Weinstein says, you don’t want your warning center washed into the sea.  We consider Diego Garcia, as close to the middle of the Indian Ocean as can be, but decide that it would be cruel and unusual punishment for the scientists.  So that leaves us with Sri Lanka, and I tell him we got Arthur Clarke and a few decent restaurants; and not too bad on connectivity now that the SLTL exclusivity is history.  You can always wear a pager and go for a nice meal.

Or maybe what we really need is a single good warning center equipped with the best equipment and manned by the best people.  After all, the tsunami that started on the 26th of December off Sumatra went to all the oceans.  Significant increases in wave height were recorded in Manzanillo on the Pacific coast of Mexico more than 11 hours after the Sumatra quake.  Weinstein thinks that it must have “done laps” around Antarctica and gone into all the oceans, though that really is a subject for many of the research papers that will be produced in the next few months.


How important are the deep sea sensors?  Helpful, but not critical from what I learned in Hawai’i.  More important is the local disaster warning system that was so vividly explained to us at the Hilo EOC.  Someone even told me (not the people at PTWC) that two of the three deep sea sensors in the Aleutians are not working at this time.  That’s not what is key to saving lives.  Even in the US, sensor location is partly driven by politics; two for the West Coast states (six senators) where they are not very helpful for warning.  Most of the key data comes from low-tech tide gauges in harbors (people reporting that the water is above normal levels).   There’s supposed to be promise in installing low-cost accelerometers in merchant ships.  These ships report weather data even now, automatically.  If they are equipped with accelerometers they can tell that the water underneath is speeding, indicating a tsunami on the way.  This is especially important because the scientists and the disaster managers worry about tsunamis generated by undersea landslides that will not register on the seismometers, but will still displace enough water to kill people thousands of kilometers away.  And they also want to minimize the false alarms, which cost a lot of money and are very bad for the credibility of the disaster managers.

Disaster Education

On the way to the airport from the Tsunami Museum, we do what all reporters do; we talk to the taxi driver.  What do you know about tsunamis we ask; what will you do if there’s a warning?  He is quite uninformed; there’s plenty of work to be done in Hilo, the former tsunami capital of the world.  The Pacific Tsunami Museum, with its motto, “Let us not forget,” is at the forefront.  The museum is a voluntary effort.  Small fees are charged from visitors, but it appears to run primarily on the donated labor of people like Curtis.  Curtis showed us the non-functioning seismometer (too many school children had pawed at it, he said) and the unopened boxes containing replacements, donated by some scientific project that was retiring the old equipment in favor of the new digital ones.  He was particularly proud of a simulation that he had set up, where the visitor gets to make decisions on evacuation (the costs in multiple millions of US dollars are also announced when the decision is made), based on various scenarios of earthquake strengths and epicenters.  When we were there, the place was humming; the Indian Ocean tsunami was bringing in the visitors (from as far away as Sri Lanka!).  Like a good North American museum, it allows people to touch and interact.  I found particularly striking the work they had done with oral histories of the survivors of the tsunamis.

But I think of the mantra of Curtis and the Civil Defense managers:  train the officials.  The officials in Hawai’i are well informed, I think, but the Mayor and the Civil Defense managers will keep at the task of ensuring they’re informed and ready.  Every time there’s a disaster watch or warning, the people at the EOC go through their procedures; after it’s all over they do a post-situation analysis and figure out how to do things better the next time.  They are engaged in a polite exchange with PTWC about the timing of the release of disaster information:  if CNN carries the story before their phone tree is activated, they get a busy tone which bothers them.  I tell them it’s possible to give them priority numbers so their calls will go through.  But they are not too keen about shedding ordinary people from the phone system.

Train the officials.  Sri Lanka seems to be well up on that one, with over 100 Sri Lankans already trained at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Bangkok, including whole lots of officials from a Ministry of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Social Welfare (we’d need a guidebook to figure out when this existed), the Ministry of Social Services and even the Presidential Secretariat.  That did not yield a single minute of official warning for those who died on the morning of the 26th of December, but let us look on the positive side.  Let us ask these disaster experts to help us meet the challenge of saving lives in the future.

The core business of government is safeguarding the lives of its citizens; Let us train the people in the Railway Department to stop the trains going on the coastal lines when a tsunami warning is out; Let us train the Navy to communicate facts like massive waves battering the East Coast to the media; Let us train the staff of the Meteorological Department (with four alumni of the Bangkok course) and the National Disaster Management Centre (three trained, including Director, now retired) to wear pagers on holidays.  And let’s make sure that the people who go to the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center actually attend the lectures and not go shopping or whatever else they do in Bangkok.  And more than anything else, let’s make sure we have the right kind of organization to keep watch on behalf of our citizens; keep watch not only against tsunamis, but also against cyclones and flash floods and land slides and all the other hazards that turn into massive disasters in this little country.  So the next time we’ll be ready and we’ll save ourselves and our children, despite the politicians who say that Sri Lanka had no reason to be prepared having only a few droughts as disasters.  We need disaster education for politicians too.  That might be the hardest task of all.