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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 22, 2010

Don't knock tsunami response

By David Shapiro

It's incredible that there are even smatterings of criticism in the community about the emergency response to last month's mini-tsunami.

Now that the costs have come in for scrambling Civil Defense teams on a weekend more than $760,000 in the four counties alone there's grousing that the mobilization unnecessarily inconvenienced coastal residents who had to evacuate and was unduly expensive for the state and counties as they struggle to balance their budgets.

It was initially estimated that the tsunami generated from an earthquake in Chile could bring waves as high as 8 feet to Hawai'i, but it ended up doing little more than roiling the water in Hilo and Kahului harbors.

The thing is, that roiling was pretty powerful for those who saw video of it, and it wasn't difficult to imagine the damage it could have done if waves had come in at the size predicted or bigger.

Tsunami tracking is as much an art as a science, with all kinds of wild cards depending on the direction the wave comes from and the angle it hits land.

This was a real event and the response was appropriate; we're never going to be certain about the size of a tsunami in advance and it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Civil Defense is a core public safety function where we can't cut corners. Instead of grumbling about unavoidable costs, we should be grateful that state and county agencies, as well as the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, performed so efficiently in keeping residents informed and getting us out of harm's way.

We only have to remember the 61 dead in the 1960 Hilo tsunami to remind ourselves of the real cost of being caught unprepared.

Tsunami forecasters get it from both sides. In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed nearly 230,000 people, they were harshly criticized for not sounding enough of an alarm.

Scientists refine their accuracy with data they gather from each event like this one and have advanced light years from my teen years in Hilo, when we had to evacuate virtually every time there was a big earthquake anywhere in the Pacific basin. But they'll never get to 100 percent accuracy because of the many variables in a very big ocean.

This was a time when government worked. Some citizens could reduce their own inconvenience by not taking every Civil Defense siren as a signal to rush out and buy enough Charmin to freshen half the bears in Yellowstone.