Delores Clark, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration public affairs officer, demonstrates one of many widely available NOAA weather radios, recommended for placement in homes and schools, Saturday in Hilo. - William Ing/Tribune-Herald

Ready for a tsunami?

Know what to do when the next tsunami comes

by John Burnett
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer

A banner on the front of the historic Kress Building invited folks inside for a free "Tsunami Safe" Disaster Preparedness Fair on Saturday.

The event, at the Connections Public Charter School in Hilo, was organized by the county Planning Department, the school and the Pacific Tsunami Museum. It was a treasure trove of information on how to prepare for a tsunami, with tsunami displays, "talk story" sessions with tsunami survivors, and tsunami experts on hand to answer questions. April is "Tsunami Awareness Month."

Ironically, the fair, like the tsunami museum a few doors down the street, was located in "Tsunami Central," an area devastated by killer waves in 1946 and 1960.

"I was just looking at the map over there, seeing where we're to go if we have to evacuate," quipped Doug Connors of Paauilo, who perused the displays along with Sue Dela Cruz and her 10-year-old son, Andy, as they awaited the start of a movie at the Kress Cinemas upstairs.

"It's a great place to learn more about tsunamis," Connors said. "Actually, we were looking at this picture of the ... train as it ran across the Bayfront, and we thought there were more houses down here. But I guess there wasn't. There were only houses in front of the area where we're at right now."

Asked if he was aware that trains once served downtown Hilo, Connors replied, "I knew there was a train here. I didn't know that it ran right on the Bayfront."

Robert "Steamy" Chow, 86, a downtown Hilo historian, knew about the trains on Bayfront. He was a police officer when the 1946 tsunami hit Hilo. When somebody told him that a giant wave had inundated downtown, he remembered that it was April 1 and thought he was being set up for an April Fool's joke.

Chow said he soon he realized it was no joke when he discovered the downtown railroad depot had been destroyed, along with a railroad bridge.

"The railroad depot was completely demolished, like a bulldozer ran through it," Chow said.

Indeed, 159 people were killed that day by the tsunami, caused by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake near the Aleutian Islands. Another tsunami, which was caused by a magnitude 9.5 earthquake in Chile, slammed Hilo again on May 23, 1960, killing 61.

Chow said he believes many tsunami deaths could be avoided.

"A lot of people, they want to see a tsunami, so they want to get as close as they can to the shoreline," he said. "That's a no-no. When the wave comes in, people have a tendency to get stage fright. They pause for a second and then run, but by then it's too late."

Nathan Becker, a geophysicist and forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Oahu, said the center has state-of-the-art equipment to monitor potential tsunami threats. DART, which is short for Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis, is "a pressure-type system that sits on the sea floor" and gives scientists a better idea of how big waves will be and which direction they're heading.

DART, of course, works best for Pacific-wide tsunami warnings, when the threat is from earthquakes far away. There are some cases, Becker explained, where providing man-made warnings are impossible, such as when the tsunami is locally-generated. That was the case with the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami caused by a magnitude 9 earthquake off Sumatra, which killed more than 500,000 people living along the Indian Ocean coastline.

"If you're on the shoreline on this island when there's a big earthquake, you need to get out of there," Becker noted.

Roxane Stewart, a science teacher Ke Ana La'ahana Charter School in Keaukaha who is working with Pacific Tsunami Museum on a curriculum project, found in her research of "very old chants" that Hawaiians were aware of tsunamis in pre-Western contact times.

"We started off this morning with a chant I composed for the tsunami deities that actually live right outside of our pali kai, right outside of our breakwall over there, just to let them know what we're doing here," she said.

More on tsunamis can be found on the NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center's Web site at

Stephens Media's Jim Quirk contributed. John Burnett can be reached at


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