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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 4, 2006

Decision to not reopen schools questioned

 •  Quake tests tsunami center

By Eloise Aguiar and Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Staff Writers

Fourteen Hawai'i schools were ordered closed yesterday during a tsunami watch, but some parents wondered why the schools weren't reopened when the watch was lifted at 7:39 a.m.

After an earthquake near Tonga, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in 'Ewa Beach put all of Hawai'i under a tsunami watch at 5:43 a.m. Before 6:30 a.m., the Department of Education had decided to close 14 schools that are in tsunami evacuation zones.

"I thought it was a little bit early to call for school closure," said Jim Terrack, who had tried to drop his sixth-grade daughter off at Ka'a'awa Elementary School after the watch was lifted. "I thought they should have given it just a little more time."

Terrack said he's retired, so having the children home from school wasn't a hardship, but other families were scrambling to make other arrangement for their youngsters.

DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen said the change in the level of threat came too late to rescind the decision to close schools in the inundation zone.

Bus companies, schools and some of the media had been notified, Knudsen said, adding that it was too late to change the decision even at 6:34 a.m. when the tsunami watch went to an advisory, indicating that there was no evidence of a destructive tsunami but there could be changes to currents.

"It was something that we really couldn't stop once the ball was in motion," he said, "or had we made that attempt it would have been more confusing. Nonetheless there was confusion."

Ray Lovell, spokesman for the state Civil Defense, said there was confusion and frustration among parents because of the mixed messages getting out but the initial decision was predicated on protecting human life.

"If there was some confusion, we'll get past the confusion at some point, maybe we'll learn something from it and even refine how we handle notification," he said. "But the point is, the first and foremost thing on everybody's mind is to make the decision that will protect life. Err on the side of safety."

Some students hadn't gotten the word at all and walked to campus, said Todd Watanabe, Ka'a'awa principal.

The students were sent home and the whole evacuation was uneventful, Watanabe said, adding that he didn't think that officials acted prematurely.

With the school about 200 feet from the ocean, threats of tsunami are taken seriously throughout the community where much of the population is in the tsunami evacuation zone.

"Anytime student and staff safety is involved, it's better to err on the side of caution," he said. "All of our homes, our community as well as our school are right on the coast."

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com and Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com.