At just before 11 a.m., when the monster tsunami was predicted to hit Hawaiian shorelines, we left our house on foot, joining dozens of other rather unrushed walkers on a hot still day walking uphill to the Diamond Head Cliffs overlooking the sea. From our 60-foot vantage, the ocean’s surface appeared agitated in an unusual way we hadn’t seen since last September’s brief tsunami alert here following the Samoa quake and tsunami. A flotilla of military and pleasure craft dotted the deeper blue waters beyond the reef, exposed at low tide.
Ordinary waves broke. There appeared to be pulses of surge covering coralheads and receding, as if the tides had been speeded up. And that was it. By morning’s end, it was clear we were in more danger from toxic plastic chemicals leaching into our bottled water than from a battering wave. Hawaii may have “dodged a bullet,” Charles McCreery, as director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said on the television news about an hour before the warning was lifted at 1:38 p.m., but it left some of us feeling as if the government and the media had pulled a fast one.
Of course we were happier to be safe than sorry. But during the buildup to the anticlimax, steady disaster coverage had fed television ratings and cash registers at supermarkets and Waikiki convenience stores. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center got a lot of attention. The rest of us, in a state where a plantation and packaged tour mentality prevails even as the plantations fail and close and tourism totters, got a strict reminder that we should listen to the authorities and follow orders, no matter how contradictory or unclear.
The phone book (no one could get information online, because emergency preparedness sites had crashed) said that people outside tsunami evacuation zones should stay put and not drive around, creating gridlock and slowing evacuation traffic.
However, local news programs urged all residents to stock up on enough food and water to last for 7 days in the event of power outages and sewage backups, and so everyone hit the streets, joining queues to top of their gas tanks, as well.
It was far from a case of either everyone having to panic and vacate Waikiki, or stay put and order room service in their rooms. According to the phone book disaster preparedness maps, all Waikiki hotel guests and workers had to do, to leave the evacuation zone, was to cross Kalakaua Ave from the ocean to the mountain side of the street. For example, the beachside Sheraton Moana Surfrider told its guests to move to highrise buildings across the street.
It’s true that the Moana and the Royal Hawaiian, the two most beautiful waterfront Waikiki hotels, are also the oldest, dating to the 1930s, made of wood frame and stucco, respectively, rather than the steel and reinforced concrete that is assumed to be able to withstand tsunami impact and flooding.
But the hotels haven’t been tested with tsunamis, obviously, nor can we assume that, in a notoriously corrupt state, every builder in Hawaii follows the code. It’s a state in hock to the military and resort industries, which is in a perpetual rush to development, with a Las Vegas wannabe complex that leads lobbyist-ridden legislators to regularly propose legalized gambling despite overwhelming local opposition.
In late afternoon, the spin job was complete, per KHNL TV’s Jim Mendoza: “By all accounts, Waikiki hotels did a good job of warning guests early this morning that a tsunami might be coming.” The anchor concluded the segment with a nod and a smile: “Waikiki back in business.” It was a jolly good show and tourists could feel satisfied they’d played a real part.
In the end, our emergency preparedness day felt just like another one-day sale.