Better safe than sorry, Hilo residents say
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
HILO — All over this coastal town yesterday, people gathered at hillside vantage points — their ears to portable radios, their hands gripping binoculars — to watch a tsunami come in that some feared would rival the 1960 waves that killed 61 people in Hilo, toppled buildings and homes and swept away cars.
By mid-afternoon, it was clear the Big Island had been spared, with no reports of damage and things returning to normal. The waves that came in did stir up waters in Hilo Bay, but water didn't spill onto roads or threaten homes.
Still, there was little talk yesterday in Hilo, often regarded as the tsunami capital of the United States, of wasted time or false alarms. Civil defense and residents alike said all indications pointed to a destructive tsunami — and that the preparations, manpower, road closures and evacuations were worthwhile.
"Better to be prepared and have it not happen," said Brad Simone, 48, of Kurtistown, who watched the waves coming into Hilo Bay with his wife from a hilly road where about 150 other residents from around the island gathered.
Curtis Narimatsu, sitting nearby on a lawn chair, agreed, saying that yesterday's waves should be considered a test for the Big Island's tsunami warning system — one that it passed.
"This is about as magnificent as you could ask for," he said. "I'm very proud of our Civil Defense authorities."
He added that the Big Island also had a lot of warning. And he wondered whether things would have been as smooth with less lead time.
Hawai'i County Civil Defense activated its emergency operations center Friday night, and Mayor Billy Kenoi said he was there at 9 o'clock getting updates on the massive Chilean earthquake and the potential for a destructive tsunami.
The center remained open through the night, in part to coordinate how thousands of residents and visitors would be evacuated from coastal areas just after first light.
TOWN VIRTUALLY EMPTY
By 10 a.m. yesterday, an hour before the waves were scheduled to roll into Hilo Bay, people were evacuated and roads near the coastline were closed.
Some 17 emergency shelters were opened on the Big Island.
But many residents opted to just move to higher ground.
Kenoi said only a handful of residents didn't heed mandatory evacuations.
He added that though the morning started a bit hectically, with residents rushing to stores for supplies and getting in long lines for gas, slowing traffic on main thoroughfares, things quickly quieted down and most people didn't panic.
By 11 a.m., Hilo was a virtual ghost town, with police positioned at key intersections to keep people out of inundation zones. Businesses were closed, houses were empty and many stores boarded up their windows as a precaution.
Kenoi said he's happy most people took the tsunami warning seriously.
"Let us really celebrate that nothing happened," Kenoi said yesterday, after the all-clear for the Big Island was called.
He added that one day — perhaps one day soon — Hilo will be tested again. "We've been very lucky for a long time. We're not always going to be so lucky."
MEMORIES OF 1960
Residents say though Hilo hasn't had a destructive tsunami since 1964, the memory of tsunamis that killed friends and relatives and neighbors is still fresh.
Vivian Velez, 75, who watched Hilo Bay from a hill yesterday, said she remembers the 1960 tsunami in Hilo well. Her family's home was right on the water and though it didn't sustain damage, many of her neighbors' homes did.
Velez, of Mountain View, drove the 30 minutes to Hilo with her family yesterday to see the waves come in. All the while she was thinking back to that killer tsunami of a half-century ago, she said.
"It was very scary," Velez said.
Other residents said Hilo was a model for the world yesterday on how to react to a potential disaster — on a day when all the world was watching Hilo.
Brandon Carvalho, 31, a landscaper, wasn't even alive for that 1960 tsunami. But he feels a sense of urgency about heeding tsunami warnings.
"Hopefully," he said, "everybody still reacts the same way next time."