homepage logo

County responds to tsunami threat

By Staff | Mar 17, 2011

The tsunami that hit Maui early Friday morning and dramatic tide surges that continued for several hours damaged the equivalent of seven slips on the outer section of Lahaina Harbor and one slip on the inner margin. “We had a substantial surge in the harbor,” said Harbormaster Hal Silva. A state engineer was scheduled to assess the damage Tuesday. At press time Monday, Silva said he was concerned about the structural integrity of all wooden pier structures in the small boat harbor. Photo by Donnell Tate.

WEST MAUI — Hawaii residents on Thursday night received serious news: a devastating 9.0 earthquake occurred at 7:46 p.m. HST near the east coast of Honshu, Japan, and sea level readings confirmed that a tsunami was generated.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning effective for all Hawaiian islands at 9:30 p.m. The center estimated the earliest arrival time of tidal surges would be 2:59 a.m. on Friday, March 11, and “urgent action should be taken to protect lives and property.”

Maui County began its disaster readiness by asking residents and visitors to check to see if they were in a flood zone to prepare for a possible tsunami evacuation.

Officials also directed the public to Maui County Assembly areas, including the baseball field above Lahaina Aquatic Center and Princess Nahienaena Elementary School in West Maui. The Lahainaluna High School gym opened later in the night, and an estimated 300 people sought shelter there.

State officials sounded emergency sirens at 10 p.m. Sirens were not heard in certain parts of Maui County, so Maui Civil Defense blared its sirens at 10:23 p.m.

Water surges into Lahaina Harbor Friday morning. Photo by George Laich.

Residents were told to prepare for a tsunami, with the arrival projected for Kahului Harbor at 3:23 a.m. Maui Police and Fire Department staff began evacuating tsunami inundation areas, and the Civil Air Patrol flew over beach areas to inform people who may have not heard the news. Civil Defense continued to sound its emergency sirens every hour on the hour.

The Department of Education officially closed all schools Friday, and Maui County shut down the Kahului, Kihei and Lahaina wastewater treatment plants at 1 a.m., because they are located in tsunami inundation zones. At the same time, the Water Department shut down its pumping stations.

Mayor Alan Arakawa received word about heated arguments at gas stations.

“This is not the time to panic. We have plenty of time to prepare and take care of our families. Remain calm and treat each other with respect. Police and fire and civil defense officials are out there helping to evacuate affected areas as we speak. We will see each other through this crisis together,” he said.

At 1 a.m., police closed the roads in tsunami inundation areas, including Honoapiilani Highway from Puamana Park to Maalaea Harbor. Sirens sounded at 2:23 and 2:53 a.m., a half-hour before the estimated arrival of the first wave.

The dramatic tidal surges caused widespread damage at Lahaina Harbor. Photos by Donnell Tate.

The surges arrived with longer intervals than anticipated: 26-56 minutes between waves. The tsunami center reported a two-foot wave in Lahaina and a six-foot wave in Kahului, where water crossed Kaahumanu Avenue near Hoaloha Park.

Surges reached Honoapiilani Highway at Ukumehame and into Launiupoko Beach Park in Lahaina. Continuing past 11 a.m. Friday, dramatic surges damaged boats, docks and piers in Lahaina Harbor.

At 6:32 a.m. Friday, the county reported that waves were flooding streets, overflowing sewage lines and leaving dirt, leaves, coconuts and other debris strewn everywhere. Affected areas included Lahaina, Kihei, Kahului and Maalaea.

Around 6 a.m., Arakawa and the directors from Public Works, Wastewater Management and the Department of Water Supply went up in a helicopter to assess the situation from the air. The directors evaluated which areas needed repairs and/or cleanup, so they could direct work crews on the ground.

State Civil Defense downgraded its tsunami warning to a tsunami advisory at about 7:25 a.m. Honoapiilani Highway and most county roadways reopened by 9:30 a.m., and water service was restored.

The dramatic tidal surges caused widespread damage at Lahaina Harbor. Photos by Donnell Tate.