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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Debate begins on delay of news

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Bridget Scott was sound asleep on the 20th floor of her Makiki condo when Sunday's earthquake jolted her awake. She woke her husband, grabbed a battery-operated radio and they ran into a closet.

For nearly 50 minutes they huddled there listening to KSSK, the state's official emergency broadcast radio station, hoping for information from authorities about what had just happened. Instead, all they heard was a pre-recorded community service program on politics.

"I wanted to know if I should worry about the next thing," Scott said yesterday.

But it wasn't until 8 a.m. that station officials interrupted the canned program with information. And not long after that, a state Civil Defense spokesman called in to explain that the earthquake had not generated a tsunami.

That's a delay that Scott and others in the community yesterday called unacceptable and a risk to an anxious public. A tsunami generated off the Big Island, for example, could reach O'ahu shores in 27 minutes.

"The public assumes we are protected," she said. "I guess it was insulting to tune in and hear a taped program when you should hear a live body."

State Civil Defense authorities defended the response to the 6.7 magnitude earthquake, which occurred at 7:07 a.m. But even the radio station's programming executives yesterday said they would have liked an earlier call from authorities.

"In my opinion, the authorities we depend on should have been out there a lot earlier to reassure the public," said Damian Balinowski, news director for Clear Channel, which owns KSSK AM and FM. "I think that an information vacuum creates a rumor mill. I believe we narrowly averted that. Sunday we dodged that bullet."

Civil Defense spokesman Ray Lovell, who was on the air explaining the disaster just after 8 a.m. Sunday, said officials at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center had quickly determined that the temblor would not generate a large tsunami. If it had, a variety of warnings would have been triggered, including sirens and an emergency alert that can break into a radio station program automatically.

That kind of radio alert is often used for lesser emergencies and was used once Sunday. With these kinds of messages, authorities fear the public will not hear the complete message and believe a deadly tsunami is coming, Lovell said.

"With people tuning in and out, you stand a great likelihood of people misunderstanding the message," he said. "The way the system works is, if there is a threat of a disaster, then you warn, rather than sending out something that says it is not going to happen."

Because power was out across the state, only a handful of radio stations were operating, including KSSK. Civil Defense officials sent out a single message at 9:57 a.m. that advised the public about the earthquake, explained that it had not generated a tsunami and asked people to stay off roads and limit use of telephones and cell phones. The message lasted one minute and 40 seconds.

"Nobody's life was going to be threatened by a tsunami, but we could have created a lot of panic if the message was misunderstood," Lovell said.

A variety of interviews with state officials, including Gov. Linda Lingle calling into KSSK from the Kona police station, helped explain the situation Sunday morning, but only after KSSK news executives arrived. On a typical Sunday morning, there is only one employee overseeing the same prerecorded show being broadcast over the seven radio stations owned by Clear Channel.

Lingle yesterday said she didn't decide to go on the air with KSSK until shortly after 8 a.m. She had just finished a telephone briefing with Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona and said she could not do it any sooner.

"There were assessments going on," she said. "When you do get up on the air, you do want to have as factual information as you possibly can. People didn't have to be told there was an earthquake. Everybody knew there was an earthquake."

But when someone Sunday asked her whether it was important to seek high ground to avoid a tsunami, she said common sense was required.

"I think common sense has to prevail and there has to be some personal responsibility taken," she said. "If a family's safety is at stake, you have to take reasonable precautions."

Civil Defense Vice Director Ed Teixeira said his staff was scrambling to collect information but their urgency was tempered by the fact that they knew a large tsunami was not coming. Still, he acknowledged that somebody could have called the station earlier.

"But for us, it was just about getting a grip on the situation," he said.

None of that sits well with Al Fink, a Makiki resident who drove through Downtown Honolulu and into Waikiki after the initial earthquake Sunday, his radio tuned to KSSK and its political program the entire time.

No one he spoke with, including police officers, knew if a tsunami had been ruled out or was on its way. In Waikiki, he found a lot of curious and uninformed tourists milling about.

"There were a lot of people in front of buildings," he said. "If there was going to be a tsunami, there were a lot of people exposed, including myself."

Fink said the state's initial warning system is flawed. He said officials should immediately patch into a radio station and give detailed information he can use to rest easy or get out of town.

"A different system needs to be put in place," he said. "We need an effective system. The truth is everyone made a big fuss about the tsunami in Thailand and all the people killed. The same thing could have happened here."

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.