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

Quake tests tsunami center

 •  Tsunami alerts sent as far as Fiji, New Zealand
 •  Decision to not reopen schools questioned

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Nathan Becker, oceanographer with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, was at his post yesterday after a 7.9-magnitude earthquake near Tonga at 5:27 a.m. Hawai'i time triggered alarms of possible tsunami. Subsequent monitoring of the area showed a minimal tsunami generated.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Gerard Fryer, geophysicist and acting director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, was in charge yesterday when the earthquake near Tonga occurred. Two hours after the quake, the 'Ewa Beach center called off all tsunami warnings and advisories of danger.

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Calling it a dry run for more serious episodes, federal and state officials said they were pleased with the way government officials here handled yesterday's tsunami scare despite a couple of glitches.

The 7.9-magnitude earthquake that led to fears of a tsunami occurred about 95 miles south of Tonga at 5:27 a.m. Hawai'i time.

All state and county agencies were notified by state Civil Defense within 45 minutes. By 7:39 a.m., the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in 'Ewa Beach called off all warnings and advisories of danger.

If a tsunami had hit Hawai'i's shores yesterday, it would have occurred around 11:30 a.m.

"For our purposes, it was a wonderful, wonderful exercise," said Gerard Fryer, acting director for the tsunami center. "We had an earthquake where there's ... basically nobody to be affected by the earthquake."

Ironically, Fryer was in charge yesterday because the center's higher-ups were attending a tsunami conference in Australia.

The tsunami center's response time, along with quick reaction from civil defense and disaster officials, drew praise from Gov. Linda Lingle.

"I want to commend our state Civil Defense, which immediately activated our disaster response plan after being updated by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center," Lingle said in a written statement. "My initial briefing from Maj. Gen. Robert Lee indicates that all proper procedures were followed, including prompt communication with all first responders and immediate notification to the public." Lee is the head of the state Civil Defense.

Yesterday's alert mobilization occurred amid moves to beef up staffing at the tsunami center and state Civil Defense. Both moves were prompted by the devastating Sumatra earthquake in December 2004 that left more than 200,000 dead or still missing. The tragedy forced many disaster-related agencies to rethink their staffing.

EYE-OPENING EVENT

The tsunami center, which operates under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only last week switched to staffing its office 24 hours a day. Previously, staff staying over in adjacent buildings were on standby by pager and expected to be in the office within three minutes.

Fryer said he does not believe the change had any significant impact yesterday since the office had to wait for additional information to come from instruments in the South Pacific before it could pinpoint the location of the earthquake.

"The nice thing about having someone up and awake is that they are fully functioning; they're not bleary-eyed, they don't have to wake up," he said. "Now for a local event, something in Hawai'i, then it becomes really valuable to have someone actually in the office because then we have to act really fast."

Ray Lovell, spokesman for the state Civil Defense, said staffing at the agency's Diamond Head office also is expected to go to "24/7" status sometime this summer after getting funding from the Legislature last year.

The agency has a full-time staff of about 33 people. It has clearance for 18 more hires, Lovell said.

Fryer said a Pacific-wide training exercise is scheduled to take place in two weeks one involving a hypothetical tsunami coming from Chile in South America, another coming from Taiwan. "That will allow everybody to test their communication circuits," he said.

MESSAGE NOT RECEIVED

As successful as the reaction was in Hawai'i, there was one serious international glitch: notification of a potentially dangerous tsunami did not reach officials in Tonga. Exactly what caused the failure is unclear.

"We sent out a message among all of our warning circuits. Apparently all of our messages were received," Fryer said. "There was a problem in Tonga because they had a power outage. And they actually didn't get our initial message. So that's something they're going to have to look at. We're probably going to have to work out an additional messaging scheme for them. But, by and large, this thing worked wonderfully."

But Mali'u Takai, deputy director of Tonga's National Disaster Office, in a telephone interview with the Associated Press, made no reference to a power outage and simply said no warning was received.

"Nobody got a warning through the emergency satellite system in our meteorological office," Takai said. "Judging by the location of the epicenter we would have been caught out without any warning at all because of the system's malfunction."

• • •

TSUNAMI RESPONSE

A look at response times to news of the earthquake near Tonga and the tsunami threat (all listings are Hawai'i time):

5:27 a.m.: An earthquake initially measured at 8.1 is generated about 95 miles south of Tonga. The earthquake later is measured at 7.9.

5:35 a.m.: Waves caused by the earthquake reach the first seismic stations and trigger alarms that go off at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in 'Ewa Beach.

5:42 a.m.: The tsunami center issues a tsunami warning for Fiji and New Zealand. The rest of the Pacific is put on advisory status.

5:43 a.m.: The tsunami center puts the state of Hawai'i under a tsunami watch. An initial report says the tsunami will arrive at midnight. It is corrected a minute later to say it will arrive at about 11:33 a.m. Civil Defense workers at the Diamond Head headquarters immediately activate an emergency operations center and begin alerting about 40 government and nongovernment agencies.

Sometime during the next 45 minutes, the state Department of Education decides to close 14 schools within tsunami evacuation zones and notifies the schools, bus companies and some media.

6:31 a.m.: The tsunami center adds Tonga, Niue, American Samoa, Samoa and Wallis-Futuna to the warning list, and the rest of the Pacific is placed on advisory status.

6:34 a.m.: Hawai'i is moved to advisory status.

7:36 a.m.: The tsunami center issues a cancellation for all areas in the Pacific under its jurisdiction.

7:39 a.m.: Hawai'i's advisory status is canceled.

Source: The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center; Civil Defense Division, state Department of Defense

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.