BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Hawaii residents watched in horror as moving cars, farms, homes, buildings and roads were hit by the powerful tsunami that swept across Japan, killing and injuring hundreds of people shortly after midnight Friday Eastern Time.
The tsunami was generated after a massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit Japan at 7:46 p.m. Hawaii time,12:46 a.m. Friday EST.)
Hawaii is in the clear as of 9 a.m. Hawaii time, with the damage from up to 12 foot surges on Maui and smaller surges on the other Hawaiian islands still being assessed.
But last night was a different story. After the Japan quake, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center almost immediately put Hawaii residents and visitors on a tsunami watch – which was upgraded to a tsunami warning about an hour later. The entire Pacific Rim and the U.S. mainland West coast also is on alert.
Under the cover of darkness, with warning sirens blaring every hour, residents across the state rushed to the store to purchase necessities that always run out first during any threat of disaster — bottled water, batteries, rice and toilet paper.
In Hawaii Kai where I live, the line at the Safeway supermarket circled the entire store and people waited as long as an hour to purchase basic necessities like water and cleaning supplies, such as Clorox bleach.
Down the street, drivers waited in lines an estimated quarter of a mile long for several minutes to fill up cars. The gasoline pumps ran dry by midnight.
Civil Defense ordered mandatory evacuation for those in flood zones. Since the maps were revised last year, many people were not sure whether they were in danger.
My family and friends had to evacuate from their beachfront homes on the windward side of Oahu and on the island of Kauai to find shelter with friends, family and at schools in safe zones.
In Waikiki, tourists were evacuated “vertically” above the fourth floor of the hotels. It is safer and easier to do that then to try evacuate them from the hotels, ultimately overwhelming shelters and jamming the streets. There isn’t enough shelter space for all Hawaii residents — or visitors — so people were encouraged to stay home and off the roads unless they were in the flood zone.
Police roused homeless people from the beach parks and told them to move to higher ground.
Boat owners in the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor fronting Waikiki hotels were told to leave the harbor and take their boats out to sea to protect them from damage.
The waves began hitting the islands just after 3 a.m. local time.
Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa evacuated the main city of Kahalui, and ordered that the power and sewage plants and water supply be shut down temporarily to ensure they are not damaged or contaminated. There were 12 foot surges in the Kahalui Harbor.
Kauai was the first island to be hit, and the Big Island was the last in the chain. Waves were smaller there.
On Oahu, with the biggest population, the ocean was noticeably different. Reefs were exposed and currents were flowing in odd patterns. Water on Oahu’s North Shore came onto land an estimated 50 feet inland. Damage in Haleiwa Harbor is still being assessed.
Most private schools canceled class for Friday.
Public schools were already closed because of government furloughs. State offices also closed Friday because of budget cuts.
Newly elected Gov, Neil Abercrombie, D-HI, just after being sworn into to office in late 2010, raided $67 million from the state’s hurricane relief fund to cover the cost of ending teacher furloughs. He also took $23 million from the state’s rainy day fund to help social service programs.
Some residents and lawmakers were concerned about the impact on the state should a natural disaster occur since almost all of the emergency funds were drained. In addition, homeowners paid into the hurricane relief fund to insure their homes during a disaster.
My son’s sophomore photography class traveled to the island of Lanai, but the flights were delayed and the airport was still closed when we arrived for check-in at 6 am. Three of the state’s airports were closed, and Honolulu International Airport officials announced delays for mainland flights and cancellations for flights to Japan.
Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said that it is still dangerous to enter the ocean Friday and advised that people stay out of the water.
The state is not reporting any deaths, despite some Waikiki visitors who stood on the shore to watch the waves, even with police helicopters circling overhead telling them to get off the beach.
Hawaii residents and visitors, many who have loved ones in Japan, are trying to reach them.
Hawaii’s old timers can empathize with the horrors going on throughout the Pacific Rim, especially in Japan, because they’ve experienced tsunamis here that have caused tremendous loss of life and property damage. The last time that a tsunami caused major damage here was 1964, with 16 foot waves hitting the island of Oahu’s North Shore.
Just last year, Hawaii had a tsunami scare resulting in a small series of waves hitting the islands. Residents complained that they could not hear the warning sirens because many were out of service. Since then the state spent $10 million upgrading the system and repairing and installing new sirens.
The Honolulu International Airport also purchased a backup generator to prevent passengers from getting stranded on the runway and to keep the automatic bathrooms from overflowing.
Malia Zimmerman is editor of Hawaii Reporter.