Tsunami costs $763,000
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
Last month's tsunami scare cost Hawai'i's counties an estimated $763,000 in overtime wages and other expenses.
Acting on forecasts provided by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in the aftermath of a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile on Feb. 26, emergency response officials for each county quickly mobilized to warn residents and evacuate low-lying areas the next day once the alert had been upgraded to a full-blown warning.
The tsunami proved to be far less serious than initially feared. And as quickly as the tension subsided amid underwhelming live shots of moderate wave activity on local shores, debate over the government's response to the threat — particularly during a period of economic crisis — began to percolate.
Honolulu County incurred a total of $330,000 in overtime pay for police and other emergency response workers and lost revenue from office closures.
The tsunami cost Hawai'i County $274,067, including $106,103 in overtime for 324 police officers.
Maui County incurred a cost of $113,895; Kaua'i's cost was $44,970.
State Civil Defense has not yet released its cost estimate.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has acknowledged that the height of the tsunami was over-estimated by about 50 percent due to the strength of the earthquake and early readings by deep-sea sensors, but said that future forecasting efforts will be aided by the massive amount of data collected last month.
Public officials, mindful of what could have happened if the forecast 8-foot wave had arrived as predicted, were anything but critical.
In the hours after it became clear that the danger had passed, Honolulu's managing director, Kirk Caldwell, said the full-scale response had been warranted.
"You're out there trying to protect the public from the worst-case scenario," said Caldwell, who served as acting mayor during the alert. Mayor Mufi Hannemann was in Washington when the initial alerts were sounded.
Still, for scientists devoted to studying such notoriously unpredictable ocean events, Feb. 27 offered a rare opportunity to compile copious data without the affected area suffering significant damage or loss of life.
"It was a very positive situation," said Pacific Tsunami Warning Center director Charles McCreery. "There was no significant damage, we'll be able to evaluate how well the tools we put in place worked or didn't work, and we have a wealth of data that will help us to refine our forecasts."
While tsunami forecasting is a decidedly inexact science, McCreery said tools like numeric forecast models and deep-sea sensors have proven reliable. He noted that forecasts gleaned from these tools allowed the center to predict minimal impacts in Hawai'i from the 2006 South Asian tsunami and the more recent tsunami in the Sāmoas. Those forecasts in turn helped Hawai'i avoid costly and unnecessary evacuations.
McCreery said the overall success of the latest evacuation effort — from the mobilization of emergency response workers and the public's high level of cooperation — also demonstrated how efficiently emergency plans could be executed in the event of a more serious tsunami threat.
And he emphasized that from a forecasting perspective, the difference between what the public might view as a non event and a serious threat to life and property is smaller than some might think.
"We were right at the borderline," he said. "If the error had been on the plus side instead of the negative, you wouldn't want people put at risk."