Ready for Disaster Part 4: Hurricanes and tsunamis

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HONOLULU (KHON2) – With picturesque weather most of the time, it’s easy to forget the very real threat that looms during hurricane season, or when our beautiful oceans can turn deadly with just hours of warning in a tsunami.

Hawaii hasn’t been hit by a major hurricane since Iniki struck Kauai in 1992, so there’s a whole generation of folks who don’t know what to expect.

That’s one reason forecasters say preparedness is key.

Related Link: Resources for natural disasters (Hi-EMA)

I grew up on Guam, an island territory in the western Pacific. It gets hit all the time by tropical cyclones (typhoons), with more frequency than here in Hawaii.

I describe it as six to eight hours of sheer terror. There’s so much noise with the winds and the rain, and you’re hearing debris, possibly your neighbor’s roof being ripped off, and you don’t know where that debris is going to. Because it’s been awhile, my hope is people don’t get to the assumption it can never happen to the state.

“Google (Hurricane) Maria. Google Irma. Google what happened in Puerto Rico,” said Ray Tanabe of the National Weather Service. “A direct hit here on the island of Oahu would be devastating. We’re so far away from help. In the case of Harvey in Texas, you can stage people in neighboring states. You can stage utility workers. You can stage help. You can stage food, and as soon as the system passes, you can start trucking everything in. We don’t have that luxury here in the islands.”

What we do have, with hurricanes at least, is the luxury of warning time.

“Over the past several years, we’ve done a fantastic job increasing our lead time,” Tanabe said. “We’re up to seven days now, providing a seven-day forecast. Beyond seven days, we’re starting to get a real good handle on looking at the conditions that are conducive for tropical cyclone or hurricane development, just to give everybody an extra heads up.”

Hurricane season is June through November, but a storm can happen year-round. One of the first hints may be in the Tropical Weather Outlook, which Tanabe explains “provides a three- to five-day forecast or outlook on the areas we’re really interested in, and this is prior to anything actually forming. Once something actually forms, we’ll start to issue forecasts and bulletins on those.”

Then the countdown begins.

“When we’re within a 48-hour window and conditions are possible,” Tanabe said, “we’ll issue a watch, and that could be a tropical storm watch. What that means is conditions are possible within 48 hours. When we have a little more certainty, we’ll issue a warning, and once a warning goes up, it means conditions are expected or are already occurring, but are expected within 36 hours.”

So go back to that family plan. Make sure those stay kits and go kits are ready, and scope out your home and work locations relative to the storm, and where the nearest shelters are.

“If you’re along the immediate coastline that’s going to be impacted by the hurricane,” Tanabe said, “there’s much more urgency to evacuate. If you’re farther inland, it becomes a personal preference. Are you confident your house is built to modern construction standards and can withstand hurricane-force winds?”

Folks along the coastlines also need to know how far back the tsunami inundation zones go. For this type of disaster, the heads up won’t be nearly as far in advance as a hurricane. The threat starts with an earthquake big enough to trigger the first stage: a watch.

“A watch means we’re still evaluating,” said Chip McCreery of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. “We may cancel a watch as there’s no threat, or we may issue an advisory. An advisory is the type of alert where you need to get people out of the water, clear the beaches, get people out of the harbors. It’s not something that’s going to inundate the land, but it can create strong and unusual currents that can create a danger for people in the water and could do some minor flooding of beaches and harbors.”

It could escalate to a warning where coastal areas are evacuated. Those areas are outlined in inundation and extreme inundation maps.

Related Links: Tsunami Evacuation Maps

“The main thing is, if you’re not in the inundation zone, you really want to stay put, because so many of our roads are coastal roads, so if people do evacuate by car, if there’s extra traffic on the road, that makes it even more difficult,” McCreery said.

For well-built, tall coastal buildings, going up may be the quickest and safest route.

“The advice is to go at least to the fourth floor or above in a 10-story building,” McCreery said.

With tsunamis you may have only a few hours advance notice, and maybe less if the earthquake happens locally. Experts say our most-likely risk is from quakes farther away.

“From South America, it’s typically about 14 hours,” McCreery said, “but from the Aleutian Islands, which is the closest area, it can be only about four to four-and-a-half hours. The minimum amount of time we would make a decision would be three hours in advance, but in most cases, it will be longer than that.”

With disasters like these that can strike at any time, be sure to have your 14-day supplies stocked, and your family plans ready and practiced.

Coming up in the final segment, we review the top essential things to do and remember to be ready for disaster.

Part 3 | Main | Part 5

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