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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 2, 2006

Typhoon evacuees on O'ahu 'vacation'

By David Waite
Advertiser Staff Writer

Almost 190 accidental tourists from Wake Island are hanging loose at an airport hotel awaiting word on how soon they might be able to return to their storm-ravaged Western Pacific atoll.

They arrived here Monday on an Air Force cargo plane, well before Typhoon Ioke had a chance to deliver a smackdown on their tiny island.

A short meeting yesterday after breakfast at the Best Western Airport Hotel dealt mostly with the logistics of relocating 188 evacuees, most of them from Thailand, on short notice, and not being able to say how soon they can be sent back to Wake Island.

A Coast Guard C-130 was scheduled to do a low-level fly-over yesterday to get the first look at the storm damage, said Air Force Capt. Nate Harris, the highest-ranking military officer stationed on Wake.

He expected to receive the first report last night on the extent of damage.

"The planning is still in the works, but the next step might be to send a ship, possibly from Kwajalein, to land a survey team to get a firsthand look, if possible," Harris said.

No one was left behind on Wake, and landing a plane on the island's runway was deemed too risky without someone on the ground to check the extent of the storm damage, Harris said.

Kwajalein, the nearest inhabited island, is about 600 miles away.

Harris, a logistics readiness officer, supervises a crew of four enlisted personnel on Wake, which served a strategic role in World War II and is used today almost solely as a refueling stop for trans-Pacific military flights.

An average of about six flights a week stop on the island and help to break the monotony, said Harris, a native of Maine who has been in the Air Force for about eight years and who put in for a remote-duty station. He arrived on Wake Island about six weeks ago while his wife stayed behind in Pennsylvania.

Harris stood out yesterday in his Air Force battle dress uniform at the front of a hotel meeting room, ringed mostly by Thai contract workers.

Most of them wore shorts and T-shirts, a few of which appeared to be newly purchased from tourist shops here.

Harris said the evacuees' rooms and meals are being paid for, each gets $20 a day and all remain on the payroll at least for now of the private company that recruited them to work on Wake.

Island fire department Capt. Sawengsak Dejalerd served as an interpreter at the morning meeting.

Afterward, he said the unexpected vacation cuts both ways.

"It's nice to be in Hawai'i it's the ideal place to be," Dejalerd said. "But still, we worry about our working place and what's going to happen to us."

He said much will depend on the extent of the damage.

Dejalerd said he has talked to his family in Thailand, as have most of his co-workers, to tell them everything is OK.

Outings are being organized for the Wake workers, who planned to visit Pearl Harbor yesterday and maybe hit the stores at Pearlridge Center later. A trip to Waikiki Beach was also on the itinerary.

As of 11 a.m. yesterday morning, the center of Typhoon Ioke was about 400 miles northwest of Wake Island, with sustained winds of 135 mph and gusts up to 160 mph, said Sam Houston, a hurricane specialist at the Central Pacific Hurricane Center in Manoa.

Some of the storm's outer bands were still raking across the island, meaning it was probably being pelted by strong winds and heavy rains, he said.

Houston said the storm is moving west-northwest at about 16 mph.

If it continues at the same speed and on the same general track, it will be just southeast of Tokyo by Wednesday, Houston said, adding that there are many variables that could affect Ioke's intensity and direction by then.

Reach David Waite at dwaite@honoluluadvertiser.com.