Surviving The Tsunami That Wasn’t

Front St. in Lahaina
Front St. in Lahaina
As all of you are probably aware, there was a tsunami warning across the Pacific last night from the 8.9 earthquake which struck off the coast of Japan.

You are also probably aware that in the end (thankfully) not much happened outside of Japan.

Nonetheless, it was an extremely hectic night and I learned several valuable things from it.

I went to go get something to eat last night around 7:30pm. Lahaina is a tourist town and there was a cruise ship in port so all the restaurants were busy. I ended up going to Famous Dave’s for no other reason than they had immediate seating.

Just before I was finished eating, I received a text message from a girl I met in Maui that said there was a 8.3 magnitude earthquake in Japan and that there was a tsunami warning. Almost at the same time I received a message from Jodi Ettenberg who is in Chiang Mai, Thailand saying the same thing.

I mentioned it to the server who already knew. It seemed that everyone in the restaurant already knew about it. I was notified at 8:30pm and the wave wasn’t scheduled to arrive in Hawaii until 3am, so we had 6.5 hours to sit around or totally flip out, depending on your inclination.

At this point I should give you a bit of background: before I started traveling I studied geology for two and a half years. I had some background on earthquakes and how waves work, so I wasn’t just flipping out. I was going to spend the next six hours to try and get more data and hear what people were saying from all over the Pacific.

Wave size predictive map released on March 10
Wave size predictive map released on March 10
The first reports did look pretty grim. It was an enormous earthquake. 8.9 makes it one of the 10 strongest earthquakes ever recorded. It occurred in the sea. It was shallow. Most important, a giant wall of water did in fact hit Japan with incredible video showing the damage. It had all the ingredients for a very bad tsunami.

However, that doesn’t mean it will create a horrible tsunami. Waves don’t necessarily go out evenly in every direction. Also, Hawaii is a long way from Japan. By the time any wave reached Hawaii, the energy would have been dissipated at least somewhat.

Also, I was in Lahaina. If you look at a map of Hawaii you’ll see a shallow area which is surrounded by three islands: Lanai, Maui and Molokai. Lahanina juts into this straight. Any wave hitting hawaii is going to either hit the opposite side of one of those three islands. If you had to pick a costal area where you’d want to be during a tsunami, Lahaina would be it. I did some quick Google searches and couldn’t find any historical examples of a tsunami hitting Lahaina, which was the former royal capital of Hawaii. Records should go back here for at least 200 years if not more.

Also, waves on this side of the island are always smaller than what you see on the other side of Maui. A drive around the island on almost any day of the year will demonstrate that.

Also, there is a seawall approximately 2m in height in Lahaina. Any wave would have to go over the wall to get to where I was several blocks away, which was another 2-3 feet higher than the wall. I was also only about half a mile down the road from the tsunami safety area, so in the event something should happen, I wasn’t that far of a walk away.

So to summarize things at this point: something very bad was potentially coming but I was far away and in a good location should something actually hit.

All of that was the geologist in me.

The traveler in me has been to most of the nations in the Pacific. I knew if anything was heading towards Hawaii it would first hit Guam, Saipan, Majuro and Micronesia. Guam would probably be the canary in the coal mine for Hawaii. Guam has a big enough population that there would probably be people on Twitter providing updates. If Guam got hit hard, then Hawaii would get hit hard. If Guam was spared, then Hawaii would be spared.

As the zero hour approached Guam, I began searching Twitter for tweets with “Guam”. It was difficult to sift through the information because so many people were retreating the same BBC update with the word “Guam” in it. Eventually I found several people who were in Guam who reported that nothing serious happened.

Over the next few hours I got dribbles of information from islands who were scheduled to get hit before Hawaii. Okinawa reported a wave 0.2m in height (less than 1 foot), Taiwan reported no damage, Saipan reported a 2 foot wave, Batanes (the northern most province of the Philippines) reported no damage, and Wake Island reported a wave 1.5 ft high.

Basically, nothing was happening. Multiple locations closer to the epicenter than Hawaii were reporting small waves and no damage. I had some data, I had confirmed personal updates from people on the above listed islands, and at this point I wasn’t really worried anymore.

Then the sirens started going off….

The street in front of the hostel where I am staying was packed with cars and the gas station across the street was full of people trying to get gas. Police set up a position in the intersection to direct traffic. One guy who was staying in the same place I was, was trying to bargain with the manager to rent a car as if he had to feel from a biological outbreak.

Around 1am I decided to go to bed. Warnings were getting called off in Taiwan and other islands and the data pouring in seemed to indicate that we dodged a bullet.

Then another siren went off…..

A group of Europeans across the hall from me went into panic mode. They began hurriedly packing all their things and putting it into their rental car. They said they were heading to high ground (mind you, the wave was still at least 2 hours away) and asked if i wanted a ride. I said no because there wasn’t going to be a tsunami. Nowhere in the Pacific was reporting any damage, and in the event something did happen, I didn’t have to go up the mountain, I only had to walk a few hundred yards to safety.

I decided to stay up and see what was going on. At this point I wasn’t so much worried about the tsunami as I was just people watching. At 2am the streets were empty. The cops at the intersection were just goofing around.

By the time 3am rolled around, the time the Tsunami was supposed to hit Hawaii, I walked up the street to see what people where doing. A few people were sitting in their cars and listening to the radio. There were no reports of anything major hitting Kauai. By 3:30am, the time the wave was supposed to hit Maui, no major damage was reported in Waikiki and nothing appeared to be happening on Maui. By 3:45am I decided to go back to bed.

Most of the evacuation precautions taken in Hawaii were prudent. A tsunami will effect different parts an island differently, depending on the topography of the island below the water. You can’t know with a fine degree of certainty what will happen where. A boat don’t need much of a wave to have damage done to them. A six inch wave was enough to damage boats in Santa Clara, California this morning. The sea rose and knocked the boats against each other. As far as I know, all the boats in the Lahaina harbor were sent safely out to sea several hours before anything happened.

The information provided by CNN, BBC, and Al Jazzera was great at first, but as the tsunami was moving across the Pacific they really didn’t have much in the way of new information. They just kept showing the same footage from Japan over and over, and talking to geologists about general tsunami issues. I was getting better information via twitter. I’m surprised they didn’t have contacts established in some of the smaller countries like Micronesia or the Marshall Islands. They might never need to use them, but when they do, they would be invaluable.

Neither the media or the government did a good job of updating people about conditions after the initial tsunami warning was released. After the initial warning, at least here, it seemed that things went on autopilot. I can understand for emergency purposes why that might be a good idea, but disseminating more information might help reduce panic and worries. Most people on the mainland seemed to think this was some sort of armageddon tsunami. The information they were getting was what I mentioned above: slow and not up to date.

Searching for information on Twitter was horrible. Too many people talking about the event made it hard to find the people who were in the middle of the event. Moreover, most of the tweets were the same BBC message retweeted over and over. Twitter needs to do something to filter searches. Jeff Jarvis recommend a different type of hash tag for people involved in an event.

I also have to confess the whole thing was rather exciting. When you have a 6 hour lead time and you are only a few hundred yards from safe ground, there really isn’t much to worry about. I could have easily dragged my bags up the hill and protected my person and my possessions if it was necessary. Despite the tragedy in Japan, the whole event shook up what otherwise would have been a very boring evening.