Some scientists defend tsunami warnings

Published 6:37 am Monday, March 1, 2010

HONOLULU — The warning was ominous, its predictions dire: Oceanographers issued a bulletin telling Hawaii and other Pacific islands that a killer wave was heading their way with terrifying force and that “urgent action should be taken to protect lives and property.”

But the devastating tidal surge predicted after Chile’s magnitude 8.8-earthquake for areas far from the epicenter never materialized. And by Sunday, authorities had lifted the warning after waves half the predicted size tickled the shores of Hawaii and tourists once again jammed beaches and restaurants.

Scientists acknowledged they overstated the threat but many defended their actions, saying they took the proper steps and learned the lessons of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed thousands of people who didn’t get enough warning.

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“It’s a key point to remember that we cannot under-warn. Failure to warn is not an option for us,” said Dai Lin Wang, an oceanographer at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. “We cannot have a situation that we thought was no problem and then it’s devastating. That just cannot happen.”

Hundreds of thousands of people fled shorelines for higher ground Saturday in a panic that circled the Pacific Rim after scientists warned 53 nations and territories that a tsunami had been generated by the massive Chilean quake.

Pat and Kim Lange of Austin were vacationing on the Hawaiian island of Maui when they received news Saturday of a potential tsunami. Their son, Josh Blaser, works in the mailroom at the Albert Lea Tribune.

Blaser said the couple was staying on the ninth floor of a hotel on the coast of Maui. They were moved to the 13th floor at first, but then authorities evacuated the coasts and everyone went to the island’s mountains.

Blaser said his brothers and sisters kept in touch with the Langes via text messages and occasional phone calls. The vacation ended Sunday, and they flew back to Austin.

Blaser said the tsunami brought only three-foot waves to Maui and no noticeable damages.

The tsunami surge was supposed to hit around 3 p.m. Central time and 11 a.m. Hawaii time but by that evening it was clear the Hawaiian Islands was safe.

“We were pretty relieved, really happy,” he said. “They texted at 7 p.m. our time and said ‘We’re fine.'”

It was the largest-scale evacuation in Hawaii in years, if not decades. Emergency sirens blared throughout the day, the Navy moved ships out of Pearl Harbor, and residents hoarded gasoline, food and water in anticipation of a major disaster. Some supermarkets even placed limits on items like Spam because of the panic buying.

As of Monday, the Chile’s earthquake had killed at least 708 people and destroyed or badly damaged 500,000 homes.