An abundance of caution morphed into panic and chaos in Hawaii Saturday night as an estimated 100,000 evacuees fled a possible tsunami spawned by a 7.7 earthquake beneath the Queen Charlotte Islands off Canada’s west coast.
Waves generated by the quake were barely noticeable in British Columbia and Alaska as the U.S. Geological Survey’s Lucy Jones urged calm. “This isn’t that big of an earthquake on tsunami scales,” she said. “The really big tsunamis are usually up in the high 8s and 9s.”
Still, as negligible waves lapped North America’s coastline, Hawaii went berserk.
State of Emergency
Warning sirens blared across the island chain following Gov. Neil Abercromie’s state of emergency declaration. Police sealed roads and highways leading into Waikiki which quickly became gridlocked as Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle urged drivers to abandon their vehicles. "If you are stuck in traffic, you might consider getting out of your car and consider walking to higher ground,” he announced. “Right now it is critical.”
Hawaiian Telecom urged customers to restrict phone calls to emergency use. Movie theaters stopped their projectors, telling audience members to seek shelter. Evacuation centers in schools on Kauai were quickly packed to capacity. Police broke up a block party in Honolulu, then fled coastal areas. Hilo’s airport was evacuated.
The Coast Guard sealed Hawaiian harbors from incoming vessels and urged boat owners to flee to sea. Hoarders descended on grocery stores and gas stations. Saturday night’s football game between Baldwin and King Kekaulike high schools was called at halftime (the Baldwin Bears declared the winners).
Media Exaggeration, Overreaction
KHON-TV’s nonstop coverage bordered on the hysterical. Fleeing to the safety of a three-story building, a normal evacuation procedure, wasn’t good enough for anchors who urged Hawaiians up to the 10th floor of buildings and frequently doubled wave height predictions by a Pacific tsunami expert who admitted not having current data, having spent so much time yakking on air. One straight-faced anchorman added, “You should seek the safety of your mother-in-law’s home. It’s always safe there.” Tweeters cherry picked the most incendiary nuggets, adding to the fear-feeding frenzy.
Pacific Tsunami Warning Center’s Gerald Fryer tried to downplay the prediction after sea levels rose only two feet and a single five-foot wave slopped ashore in Kahului Harbor. “It's beginning to look like the evacuation may not have been necessary,” he said.
“Hawaii spared major hit from tsunami” blared egg-faced newspapers Sunday morning, despite the fact that no “major hit” had happened anywhere. No property damage, no injuries.
Credibility took the major hit in Hawaii on Saturday night. Will Hawaiians shrug off the next dire warning?