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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tsunami Expected for South Shores

Hawaiians braced for an expected tsunami from a giant earthquake off the coast of Chile, as officials in the state evacuated thousands of residents and tourists to higher ground.

The "Big Island" of Hawaii may face the biggest threat of wave damage, officials on the islands said.

"Residents right on the coast should be concerned and evacuate the coast," especially in places like Hilo Bay on the island of Hawaii, said Barry Hirshorn, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

The tsunami-warning center's models, based on readings from sensors, are predicting "very rough waves" from six to 10 feet high by the time the tsunami hits Hawaii at about 11:00 a.m. local time, Mr. Hirshorn [cq] said. Any major tsunami waves could be damaging, he said, because "the don't crash on the beach. They streamroll in and they streamroll out."

Evacuations were taking place on low-lying areas throughout the state, including the islands of Maui, Kauai and the most populated island, Oahu, where Honolulu lies.

The last time statewide evacuations were ordered for a tsunami was in 1994, but large waves failed to materialize then.

Some of the most intense preparations were taking place in the greater Hilo area, said Bill Hanson, administrative officer with the Hawaii County Civil Defense on the Big Island. The city of Hilo is situated on the southeastern side of the Big Island, facing the direction from which a tsunami wave as high as 14 feet was projected to hit, Mr. Hanson said.

The city is preparing for major damage if the waves are big. "It's not a matter of if, but when it will happen," Mr. Hanson said.

Federal officials closed the Hilo International Airport at 5:30 a.m. Saturday so the estimated 5,000 residents of coastal subdivisions lying next to it could evacuate more quickly across the tarmac, Mr. Hanson said.

Hotels were also emptying guests out of resorts. At the beachfront Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, officials said they had begun evacuating guests from the 286-room resort before tsunami sirens were scheduled to sound across Hawaii at about 6 a.m. They didn't have an estimate on evacuees, but said the hotel was 75% full.

Hotel staff, meanwhile, said they planned to follow suit afterwards. Desk clerk Marian Somalinog said she planned to evacuate at 9:30 a.m. -- almost two hours ahead of when the wave was expected to hit -- but added that she wasn't overly concerned. "If it's my time to go it's my time to go," Ms. Somalinog said.

The warnings were being taken seriously in Hawaii because the state -- especially around Hilo -- has been hit by giant tsunami waves before. At least three big ones have struck Hilo since World War II, including one in 1946 that killed 163 people and another in 1960 that killed 61, said Mr. Hanson.

The most recent loss of life from a tsunami on the island occurred in 1975 when a big wave killed three campers at a beachfront park, he said.

Authorities were hoping loss of life would be minimized this time, in part because tsunami drills are commonplace on the Big Island and throughout Hawaii. Evacuations were also being ordered on other parts of the island, including the affluent Kohala Kona coast where many large resorts are situated.

Waves there were expected to rise as much as seven feet. Other parts of Hawaii, including Maui and Oahu, were not considered in as great a threat because the Big Island lies in the path of the projected tsunami wave and would take the brunt of its force, Mr. Hanson said.

In Hilo, most of the area's 50,000 residents live on ground high enough to escape much damage from a tsunami. The area of greatest concern is a coastal plain around Hilo Bay where the Keaukaha subdivision by the international airport is located, as well as downtown Hilo.

Elsewhere, the tsunami was disrupting air routes to and from Hawaii. At San Francisco International Airport, delays in flights to airports in Hawaii were being reported as a result of the tsunami preparations.

People should stay away from coastlines for six to 12 hours after the wave to be safe, said Mr. Hirshorn, because the first waves aren't necessarily the biggest

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