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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tourists praise warning system, precautions


By Suzanne Roig and Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writers

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Tourists walked along the small breakwater in front of the Waikiki Beachside Hotel yesterday, then beat a hasty retreat as water surged to several inches from the top of the rocks.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Tony Depaz, facing camera, chatted with friends and family, all from Chicago, on Khi Beach as the tsunami threat waned yesterday. Waikks beaches were uncharacteristically deserted much of the day.

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WAIKĪKĪ O'ahu's tourism mecca slowly returned to normal yesterday after businesses were shuttered all morning and tourists were confined to their hotel rooms.

Many were not worried about the threat of a tsunami, and many praised the state's warning system that included blaring sirens that sounded even before the sun had risen.

"I'm not worried at all," Bill Surina, a visitor from Indianapolis , said when the threat of a tsunami still loomed large. "I've gotten so many text messages for 35-45 minutes from people on the Mainland wondering if I'm OK. We should all be safe."

Waikīkī hotels evacuated lower floors by moving guests to vacant rooms and some to other hotels away from the beach before the 11:05 evacuation order was issued by state Civil Defense. Guests of the Moana Surfrider cleared its lobby and restaurants even before the tsunami was supposed to hit.

After the threat of the tsunami was past, Sharon Reams, an Oregon visitor, went for a walk on the beach to check it out. She wasn't unhappy with the state's procedures or that Waikīkī was practically shut down.

"It was great," Reams said. "I'm glad they put things into action and nothing happened. That was perfect.

"I'm not disappointed at all."

State tourism liaison Marsha Wienert credited early coordination with a smooth emergency response throughout Waikīkī and other resort areas throughout the Islands.

"We activated very early," Wienert said, with the first calls going out at 1:30 a.m. and people in place by 3:30 a.m. She said representatives of the island visitor bureaus worked together at emergency operating centers on all islands.

The state's No. 1 industry also had learned from earlier emergencies that it works better to encourage people in low-rise buildings to go to higher ground and those in high-rises to go above the third floor in what they describe as a "vertical evacuation."

That's better than telling everyone to leave the properties all at once, which in the past caused people to jump into cars and create sudden gridlock.

"Each property has its own internal crisis emergency plan," Wienert said, and those ran smoothly.

Well before yesterday's tsunami alert was sounded, Hawai'i's tourism industry had planned for this type of situation. Wienert said officials and private industry improved the response after experience with previous blackouts and other emergencies.

At the Sheraton hotels, Roy Helepololei, director of security, had whiteboards with updated information about the tsunami placed on each floor. The hotel also made announcements in both English and Japanese over its public address system.

"We started calling in (employees) at 1 a.m.," Helepololei said. "We have a plan already in place, and we're doing a vertical evacuation to higher floors."

Meanwhile, firefighters and police cars with public-address equipment broadcast warnings throughout the morning, advising people to stay in their homes or hotels, and to stay off the beaches.

Kalākaua Avenue was empty of traffic all morning. Tourists took pictures of themselves standing in the street.

Police and lifeguards cleared the beach and Hubert Chang, owner of the Hawaiian Ocean Waikiki surf concession, filled three flatbed trucks with surfboards and carted away two outrigger canoes in preparation for the tsunami.

"I'm taking the warning seriously," Chang said. "They're predicting it for sure, but I don't know how bad it will be."

Despite the warnings, surfers continued to go in the water, too tempted by the unusual south swell.

"The waves were unbelievable," said Roxanne Laakea Young, a Makiki resident who went surfing early yesterday morning. "No one was out there. It was good, but weird because there usually are 100 people out there at 7 a.m., but today there were just a couple."

Honolulu police Maj. Greg Lefcourt was confident yesterday morning that his officers had things pretty much under control. At 5 a.m., city buses went to Kapi'olani Park to haul homeless people to a shelter just in case the tsunami hit.

"People have the word that this isn't the place to be right now," Lefcourt said.

Ros Chimes, a visitor from Britain, sat beachside in front of the Moana Surfrider yesterday. A guest of the hotel, Chimes was waiting for the word about returning to the hotel or being evacuated.

At about 10 a.m., most guests at the Moana were ordered across the street to the Princess Kaiulani Hotel. She said the mood was like a party.

"The biggest panic was trying to find coffee this morning," Chimes said.