As Tsunami Approached, Hawaii County Civil Defense Encountered Unexpected Challenges

article top
Tsunami wave (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – In a candid interview, Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Ben Fuata shared what worked and what didn’t during Saturday night’s tsunami scare. Here is an approximate timeline compiled by his first hand account, civil defense logs, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center alerts and media accounts.

5:04 p.m. An earthquake is recorded off of Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada. At first, the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center reports the earthquake as a 7.1, but 10 minutes later, the center revises the reading to 7.7.


5:14 p.m. KITV News reports the 7.1 earthquake and said no tsunami was generated.

5:47 p.m. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center sends out a second alert about the earthquake, maintaining no action was necessary. At the bottom of the alert, there was a notation that some coastal areas could experience unusual currents and waves around 10:28 p.m.

7:00 p.m. The Hawaii Island Civil Defense issues a notice to Hawaii Island residents and media. They repeat the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center alert and tell residents and visitors to watch for unusual currents or strong waves. The alert went out via MP3 and text message to media and residents. Fuata said because many residents go fishing and pick Opihi on the weekends, Civil Defense felt it necessary to notify the public about dangerous ocean currents and waves. Because it was Saturday night, it took a little time to get a staff member into the office and to prepare and distribute the alert.

7:09 p.m. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center changes its alert status from no threat of a tsunami to the highest threat of a tsunami, upgrading to a Tsunami Warning.

7:15 p.m. Oahu first responders and Oahu Department of Emergency Management personnel receive word of the Tsunami Warning. Media on Oahu announces the Tsunami Warning is in effect and mandatory evacuations from coastal areas are underway.

7:15 p.m. Oahu residents call friends and family on Hawaii Island to tell them of the coming tsunami. Hawaii island residents are confused because they just received a message from Hawaii County Civil Defense telling them there is no tsunami threat. Big Island residents turn on their television or radio and some call the Hawaii County Civil Defense headquarters for clarification. Simultaneously, the Hawaii County Civil Defense staffer hears chatter on his radio about a Tsunami Warning and seeing no alert from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, turns on the television news.

7:22 p.m. Big Island Civil Defense is officially notified of the Tsunami Warning status. Personnel begin calling radio stations to get out the alerts, but because it is Saturday night, some stations had no staff on site, and Civil Defense called station managers to ask them to come to work.

Evacuations from Hawaii Island flood zones and coastal areas begin. No civil defense sirens sound.

The Big Island Civil Defense attempts to broadcast an alert through the Emergency Alert System. The message is delivered, but does not go out. Civil Defense staff members realize something went wrong and contact Alerting Solutions Inc., the private contractor that manages the Emergency Alert System. They are told one of two servers is down and must be rebooted. The message is eventually broadcasted.

Ben Fuata, who was 80 miles away driving back to the Civil Defense Headquarters in Hilo from his daughter’s volleyball game in Kona, calls Hilo airport personnel to ask them to close the runway. Air Traffic Control must land all planes before security can open the emergency access gate that allows Hilo residents to leave the flood zone and drive to safety.

Drivers line up at the gate, but are not allowed to cross. Some drivers get upset and concerned because they are listening to media reports and public safety officials who say they must evacuate.

Refineries are located near the airport in the tsunami impact zone. The refinery personnel prepare the oil refineries for any waves that may hit and move trucks and equipment. That process further backs up traffic. Airport security also has to be put in place so there are no safety breaches at the airport.

Emergency responders go from house to house asking residents to evacuate.

County workers close beach parks and open holding areas for displaced residents and visitors.

8 p.m. Warning sirens sound on Oahu.

8:02 p.m. State Civil Defense radio operators arrive at the Operations Center in Diamond Head Crater.

8:15 p.m. Hawaii County Civil Defense sounds emergency sirens. Many residents report they either did not hear the sirens or they did not hear sirens going off until 8:33 p.m. or 8:45 p.m. Fuata said they had to coordinate the sirens with the airport, so the gate was open when the sirens were sounded.

8:50 p.m. The airport gate is opened and drivers are allowed to cross the runway so they can evacuate from the flood zone.

10:05 p.m. Evacuations are complete.

10:28 First tsunami waves hit Oahu.

10:43 First tsunami waves hit Hawaii Island.

There was no damage from the tsunami reported on Oahu or Hawaii Island.

Fuata, who was hired as the Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator six months ago after spending 22 years in the military, said he takes full responsibility for the problems that occurred on Saturday.

He said his civil defense team is thankful to the many emergency personnel who stepped up to coordinate evacuations and media that helped with messaging. He noted the important role social media played in getting out the word about the tsunami warning.

Fuata said they learned many valuable lessons on Saturday and will be implementing changes to ensure the problems do not reoccur. They also are establishing new partnerships with media, non-profits and hotels based on feedback they received.

On Thursday, the county will be testing all 71 sirens to ensure they are operational. County personnel and police will be stationed at each siren during the testing.

Residents on other islands, such as Kauai and Oahu, also reported siren outages. Those respective counties will be conducting similar tests.





  1. I still would like to know why after the second siren went off and I turned on the radio, all the FM stations especially KSSK was still playing music and not warning residents about the tsunami warning???

  2. that's great they are so forthcoming about what didn't work so they can work on fixing the problems. Thank you.

Comments are closed.