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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 1, 2010

Tweets aided evacuation

By John Windrow
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Some Hilo residents kept watch from Ponahawai Street, where a roadblock was part of preparations for the tsunami.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Police cars slowly drove down Kaläkaua Avenue Saturday, broadcasting tsunami warnings in several languages.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Brian Shiro, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, estimates he sent 500 tweets during Saturday's tsunami evacuation and became one small part of new technology that officials say helped lead to a smooth evacuation and community response.

He called the state's response to Saturday's tsunami "a success story from end to end of our warning system."

Shiro, who described himself as "a big social networker," said he could only speculate about the effect of such digital communication. But he did say: "It is a good way to have community communication. People can quickly get answers. They may not always get the right answers, but at least they know they are not alone."

John Cummings, Honolulu Emergency Management Department spokesman, cited several major factors in the relatively smooth evacuation of 40,000 to 50,000 tourists and residents to higher ground: the work of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in 'Ewa Beach; the training readiness of emergency management officials; and digital networking that got the word out quickly after a huge earthquake Friday in Chile set the tsunami warning into motion.

"It wasn't a false alarm," Cummings emphasized yesterday. "It was a real tsunami event and tsunamis are dangerous. And the way Hawai'i officials and the public responded was extremely valuable to us. We learned that we are ready to deal with these situations. We evacuated as many as 50,000 people — and it went very well."

And Cummings especially praised the response from individuals.

"People in Hawai'i understand what tsunamis are and what they can do," he said. "The public responded quickly and orderly in moving to higher ground and taking the necessary precautions. That was crucial, a tremendous help in our overall response."

He said the deadly tsunami in Sāmoa in September no doubt reinforced Hawai'i residents' awareness of the dangers posed by tsunamis.

"Another thing was the timing," Cummings said. "We had a five-hour window (from early Saturday morning). It was a Saturday so the traffic wasn't as bad and we didn't have to worry about getting kids out of school."

He also said people communicate much more quickly nowadays.

"First, we had the news media — TV, radio and online — getting the word out right away," he said. "But people were communicating through Facebook, Twitter and texting to let each other know what was going on and they responded quickly and smoothly in doing what they needed to do to get themselves out of harm's way. The fast public response, which was calm and orderly, was a big help."

Cummings also said the technology at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is much more advanced than it was in the last statewide evacuation for a tsunami in 1994, in response to an earthquake in the Kuril Islands off eastern Russia.

"We responded very well at all levels," he said. "The counties and state drill for something like this two times a year."

Shiro, of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, believes that public education campaigns about what to do during a tsunami threat "must be working because there was so little confusion."

"No matter how good the warning system is," he said, "people have to know what to do, and evidently our public education efforts are working."

While the tsunami wave that touched Hawai'i wasn't nearly as big as anticipated, the magnitude of the Chile earthquake — with a death toll of more than 700 and climbing — justified erring on the side of caution.

"We said the wave in Hilo Bay could reach about 10 feet," he said. "It was 3 feet."

He said the Civil Defense order for a statewide evacuation was a similar circumstance. "You could argue about that decision if you want to," Shiro said, "but it was a decision to be safe rather than sorry."

The fact that it was a real situation, not a drill, enhanced the learning experience, he said.

"It was an ideal situation. We could exercise all the aspects of a tsunami situation, but we knew it wasn't going to be catastrophic, so we could do it all the way we wanted, to test all the gear. Every time we have an event we can test and examine our software and study how to improve it so we can make better forecasts."