Let’s stop whining about evacuations

For the second time in two years, officials at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and Hawai‘i Civil Defense have had to defend themselves against public grumbles that they were too quick to order disruptive coastal evacuations after major earthquakes.

The most complaints came after last year’s Chile earthquake caused only minor roiling of the water here, but there were still gripes last week after a tsunami from the 9.0 Japan quake caused considerably more damage on several islands but no fatalities, leaving officials somewhat on the defensive.

Dr. Gerald Fryer of the tsunami warning center said the coastal evacuations were exactly why there were no fatalities last week. “This evacuation was necessary,” he said. “This was the right thing to do.”

Said John Cummings of O‘ahu Civil Defense, “If we chose not to evacuate and we take damage and injuries and casualties, we are in for a lot of trouble. If we order an evacuation and we have a nondestructive tsunami and we sounded the sirens, we will still have people who are upset. But we have to err on the side of public safety.”

There is simply no disputing what they say, and it’s unbelievable that our threshold for inconvenience has become so low that they even have to defend their judgment.

Looking at the Napoopoo houses knocked off their foundations and in one case into Kealakekua Bay, the flooded businesses in Kailua-Kona, the significant damage to boats and harbors on O’ahu, Maui and the Big Island, there’s no questions that we would have seen deaths if there was no evacuation.

The surge at Napoopoo was at least 11 feet high and reached more than 100 feet inland. Lucky the residents were out of there. A wave like that in a more densely populated coastal area could be catastrophic.

There’s no way to predict all the variables with 100-percent accuracy, but we’re blessed to have the technologically advanced warning system that we do.

When I was a teen in Hilo in the mid-1960s, we had no sophisticated forecasting, but evacuated with little complaint every time there was a major earthquake in the Pacific Rim. Of course, we had the 61 dead in the 1960 Hilo tsunami fresh in our memories.

Let’s not grumble our way to another grim reminder of the cost of being caught unprepared.

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12 Comments on “Let’s stop whining about evacuations”

  1. zzzzzing Says:

    I personally know both of these gentlemen & what they say is absolutely true. Better to evacuate & have nothing happen, than to stay put & someone get injured or killed. I commend them for their actions & hope to have them & others like them @ the forefront of DEM & PTWC for many years to come.

  2. WooWoo Says:

    I also think that they should stop releasing tsunami modeling information to the public. It can mislead people. In particular, wave height estimates can lull locals into a false sense of security (“6-foot wave? I surf dat all the time!”). But it can be 6-feet of water rushing 6-miles inland, like in Sendai Japan.

    PTWC should just issue a watch or a warning and an estimated arrival time. Civil authorities should order evacuations. That’s it, no need to publicize the models. Giving the public more information only tempts them into using their own judgment. In the situation of a potentially catastrophic natural disaster, I don’t want people using judgment; I want them to get the hell away from the shore.

    And great job by all on this tsunami.

  3. Michael Says:


    Those who grumble at least they live to see another day. Rather smart not to go bottom fishing in the bay.


  4. Kolea Says:

    I disagree with WooWoo on this. I think it is prudent to be as transparent as possible. Withholding information only leads to suspicion and distrust.

    Our online television personalities–I hesitate to call them newscasters or “broadcast journalists,” can use some more training, however. Some were pretty good. But Joe Moore could not keep from casting doubt upon the predictions and suggesting maybe the warning was overblown, like with last year’s tsunami.

    Had the tsunami hit harder, I think some people may have died as a result of Joe’s on-air rambling remarks. Not every TV news anchor is inherently suitable as an on-air communicator during an emergency.

    OTOH, I was quite impressed with Dr. Fryer’s on-screen comments and explanations. The “models” these scientists are developing are getting more accurate at predicting complex, multi-variable processes. Congratulations for their professionalism. And the reasonable calmness with which Hawaii’s residents responded to the alert.

    One complaint, the police were still blocking returning traffic to East Honolulu until about 9am. They had to wait until the Mayor would issue an all-clear declaration. Carlisle’s delay in doing so suggests he was either getting bad advice, or had difficulty recognizing the danger was over. It is a common reaction after a dramatic event. But the overall system has to be a bit more professional so one man’s hesitation cannot unnecessarily delay a return to normalcy.

  5. WooWoo Says:


    I agree with you about the TV people. Paul Drewes was giving his opinion of the possible tsunami and downplaying the threat as well. Bad, bad, bad.

  6. Michael Says:

    Should have been there in 1960. No news or forecast. People who were curious lost their lives. On Maui there is no way to get to higher grounds that does not pass by the ocean.

    April 1, 1946, people thought it was a joke. Some of them never got to grumble!


  7. Anticoqui Says:

    Not to make light but…seems Kauai got a break even though the tidal surge reached us first. the surges were not as big as on the other islands maybe because we seem to get hit by hurricanes instead. Big thumbs up for the folks who listened and moved/stayed away from the shoreline. Too bad the ‘macho man’ photographer in Cresent
    City, CA lost his life filming the surges into that town.

  8. David Shapiro Says:

    TV’s job in a natural disaster is to keep people informed, calm and focused on what needs to be done. The problem in a tsunami is that after the first hour, they have little new information to impart and five hours of air time to fill before something does or doesn’t happen, which leads to babbling and speculation.

    I find that the most knowledgeable TV guys in a natural disaster are the weather people, and it happened in this case that the top guys at KITV and HNN, Justin Fujioka and Guy Hagi, were on vacation. I was especially impressed with Fujioka’s explanations during the Chile tsunami scare last year. Justin Cruz at KHON and Ben Gutierrez at HNN are experienced and had some worthwhile insights. There was also some decent reporting from the warning center and civil defense. But there wasn’t nearly enough information to usefully fill the time.

    To be honest, confident that I was on safe ground, I turned off the TV and took a nap from 10:30 to 2:45 and was pretty sure I didn’t miss anything except probably some good reports out of Japan.

  9. Kolea Says:


    Your comments about the meteorologists were spot on. Guy Hagi has the added advantage of being a surfer and knowing something about waves. He would undoubtedly be much more knowledgeable in explaing the difference between tsunami behavior and normal wave action.

    Not to continue picking on Joe, but while the Waikiki trafic cam was showing HIGHLY irregular surge action at the Kapahulu seawall, Joe was misinterpreting the “calm” which was caused by the water receding as evidence things were returning to normal. Some of the junior news folks were hesitant to correct him on air. But the images on the screen were evidence things were NOT normal. And Joe just couldn’t see it.

    I went to the beach Friday afternoon. The coral was quite exposed. It was kinda scary after the tsunami scare, but I figured it was just low tide. 15 minutes later, the coral was all under water. 15 minutes after that, it was exposed. 12 hours after the first wave hit, the tidal surges were still acting up, though less dramatically. I talked with some surfers at the showers. They said the currents were really odd as well.

    I realized how close we came to suffering serious damage when I finally saw the photos from the harbors, as well as the YouTube video of Kona:

  10. zzzzzz Says:

    Dave, I think it’s Dr. Gerard Fryer, not Gerald.

    Woowoo, I think part of the problem is calling a tsunami a wave, and thus people might think of a 6-ft tsunami as a 6-ft wave. It’s more like a sudden 6-ft increase in sea level.

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