Section 2318 April 15, 2005

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Hawaii Tsunami Safety


Susan Tosh

ENG 102

Section 2318

April 15, 2005

Issue Analysis/MLA Format
Hawaii Tsunami Safety explores, in depth, tsunami safety in Hawaii. The ancient past through the present history of tsunami occurrences and discussion about the impact they have had on the people of Hawaii. The paper looks in depth at the forces of nature that cause tsunamis. Exploration into the development of an effective warning system occurs, from the false alarms in the beginning to the current sophisticated tsunami warning system The different technology in the new warning system is explained. There is examination into the development of mass tourism and the impact on the Hawaiian economy. Investigation into the need to protect tourism by creating a sense of confidence is revealed.

Hawaii Tsunami Safety

Thesis: The terrifying scenes of the Indian Ocean tsunami will force Hawaii to advertise the long standing safety record of their tsunami warning system and to convey confidence among the tourism industry, which is vital to the Hawaiian economy.
I. All the recent news coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami brings to light the danger of tsunamis in Hawaii.

A. Extensive history of Hawaiian tsunamis

1. Ancient history to late 1800’s

a. Folklore

b. Missionary written accounts

2. 1946 Hilo tsunami

a. Personal accounts

b. Everyone is a victim

B. The major causes of tsunamis

1. Earthquakes

2. Volcanoes

3. Landslides

C. The future chance of tsunamis

II. The economic factors of Hawaii’s tourism make tsunami awareness critical.

A. History of tourism in Hawaii

1. Start of tourism

a. 1920s

b. Flying Clipper ship

2. Shift in Perspective

B. Mass growth of tourism

1. Speed of travel

2. Hotel and condo explosion

C. The top economic factor

D. Tourism safety factor

III. An effective warning system is comprised of many components.

A. Early warning system

B. Further scientific development

C. Effective warning system

1. Early false alarms

a. People ignore warnings because too many false alarms

b. More accurate measurement indicators available

2. Well defined system

a. Tsunami ready program

b. Evacuation signs

c. Brochures and education

3. Confidence in system

a. Loss of life in the last 50 years

b. Major force behind new system for the Indian Ocean

Imagine golden beaches with tropical breezes coming off the azure blue ocean. What a way to escape on that perfect vacation. The tide rolling gently in and out, the waves breaking gracefully, the small increase in the rise of water goes unnoticed. The sea then does a drastic retreat. The next incoming wave is massive, 20 feet tall, destroying paradise, everything and everyone in its path. Could this happen in America’s beach paradise Hawaii, repeating the devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami? The physical destruction of Mother Nature cannot be controlled, but fortunately the loss of human life, can be prevented. The terrifying scenes of the Indian Ocean tsunami will force Hawaii to advertise the long standing safety record of their tsunami warning system and to convey confidence among the tourism industry, which is vital to the Hawaiian economy.

First of all, what is a tsunami? A tsunami, a Japanese word meaning “harbor wave,” is a seismic sea wave, in scientific terms, which can cause catastrophic damage when it hits a coastline (Tsunami). Were there major destructive tsunamis in Hawaii’s past? Why does Hawaii have an extensive warning system? What factors made it so important for Hawaii to develop a warning system? Before understanding the current sophisticated tsunami warning system the past really has to be explored, the stages leading to the development of the warning system, and the scientific factors involved.

All the recent news coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami brings to light the possible danger of tsunamis in America, more specifically, in Hawaii. Hawaii is in the forefront because it is so similar to the tourist beach scenes shown in the Indian Ocean disaster. Hawaii does have an extensive history of tsunamis, but the people of Hawaii learned from the past to make the future different from the Indian Ocean disaster. Geological evidence has been found four miles inland, such as lava rock, seashells, coral, and sand to prove there was a mega tsunami. This occurred about 120,000 years ago, and must have had a wave approximately 1600 feet high to bring sea life so far inland (Lorenzi). Hawaiian folklore has tales of tsunamis, or great waves, that were passed down orally through the generations. When the missionaries came in the mid 1800s they also brought the ability to write down the stories from the folklore and start recording current events (Dudley 28) The recording of past and current tsunamis was the beginning of data collection for future predictions about tsunami impact. “Since 1819, about 40 tsunamis have struck the Hawaiian Islands” (Tsunami). In 1946 a massive tsunami struck the Hawaiian Islands. The greatest damage and loss of life was in Hilo on the large island of Hawaii. At first the school children considered it an April Fool’s Day practical joke when they began hearing the reports of the waves and the destruction (Dudley 3). The personal accounts from the survivors and the destruction shown in photos make the horror of the reality understandable. “On the five main Hawaiian Islands, 159 people were killed by the waves” (Dudley 21). This loss of life seems small compared to the numbers lost in the Indian Ocean, but it was more than enough to make the Hawaiians know that a warning system needed to be developed. The loss of life was not the only impact. The impact was like the ripple effect; everyone on these small islands was affected by loss of life to a family member, neighbor, or friend. The day to day life was completely interrupted by loss of electricity, water, and sewer service. The main downtown with most of the basic services was destroyed or greatly damaged. Many were homeless. “Newspaper accounts all told of the ‘tidal wave,’ but we now know that the terrible waves that came from the Aleutians and wreaked havoc in Hawaii had nothing to do with the tides” (Dudley 28).

“Though it’s true that tsunamis are ocean waves, calling them by the same name as the ordinary wind-driven variety is a bit like referring to firecrackers and atomic warheads both as ‘explosives’” (Pendick). There are three major forces of nature involved in the cause of a tsunami. A tsunami is caused when the normal flow of the ocean is interrupted, similar to a giant stone being tossed into a pond. One cause is a volcanic eruption or “undersea volcano” (Tsunami). A land volcano is the least likely to cause tsunamis unless it is located close enough to the ocean or the lava flows are swift enough to impact the ocean. An eruption in itself does not usually cause a tsunami. The second cause is a landslide, whether at the ocean edge or undersea. Once again the ocean’s normal waves are interrupted and a ripple effect is started. The size of tsunami is directly related to the quantity of land discharged. The most common cause of a tsunami is an earthquake. An earthquake off the coast of Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands, was the cause of the 1946 Hilo tsunami. The earthquake does not need to be directly in the ocean or at the coastline as the Earth’s plates are large enough for the earthquake to occur inland, but movement of the plate is affected miles away in the ocean. It is the shift or upheaval of the Earth’s crust that causes the tsunamis generated by earthquakes. The Pacific tectonic plate, also known as the ring of fire, is one of the largest and most active in the world (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Pacific region’s tectonic plates (Atwater)

The Pacific having the largest most active tectonic plate makes the area a prime candidate for more massive tsunamis. The loss of life is the prime reason for the warning system, but the loss of tourism dollars, which are so important to the Hawaiian economy, is another.

Having a tsunami warning system that is effective helps protect the tourism industry by building confidence that safety is a priority. Why is protection of tourism so important? The tourist industry accounts for $11 billion annually; the next closest sector is the military, which only account for $3 billion annually (Nilsen 47). As the numbers show, tourism is the top industry in Hawaii. “Tourism is the most important driver of economic activity” (Hawaii). Tourism has a long history in Hawaii dating back to the 1860s with the luxury steamships. “By the 1920s, 10,000 visitors a year were spending almost $5 million—cementing the bond between Hawaii and tourism” (Nilsen 48). “The most decisive factor in the growth of Hawaiian tourism came in 1936 when a Martin M-130 flying boat, the Hawaii Clipper, soared out over San Francisco Bay with seven paying passengers (Tregaskis). The first transpacific flight was accomplished, leading the way for faster, more affordable travel. Until the faster cheaper flights were developed tourism was for only the elite. As progress in travel was being made a decline in the large plantations profitability was occurring. This decline in the plantation revenue gave economic leaders the incentive to pursue tourism as a mass marketing venture to boost the economy. A group of business leaders developed a plan to increase tourism. This brought on a building boom. Hotels and condominiums sprang up everywhere. The plan worked. By the 1970s tourism had overtaken the military to become Hawaii’s largest industry (Tregaskis 41). Now Hawaii has all these visitors, to whom image is everything. How does Hawaii protect them from a natural disaster like a tsunami without putting fear into their paradise experience?

This is where an effective warning system comes into the plan. Scientists, as early as the 1920s, were starting to connect the fact that after an earthquake a tsunami can occur. The scientists were from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) that had been established in 1912. Thomas A. Jaggar, the founder of HVO, knew it took minutes for an earthquake across the ocean to register on the seismograph, but it took hours for a tsunami to travel that far (Dudley 45). Why not use this time as a warning? R.H. Finch, a meteorologist, observed that it took approximately equal time in hours that it took time in minutes for the seismic waves to travel the same distance (Dudley 45). A key component lacking was tide gauges to accurately measure the true change in tide. In 1933 the scientists were able to test their theories. A large earthquake occurred in Japan. Using their calculations they notified the harbormaster that a tsunami could be expected about 3:00 o’clock (Dudley 46). The first waves stuck Hawaii at 3:20. Because of the warnings no lives were lost (Dudley 47). The tide gauges were in place; the seismographs recorded the Alaskan earthquake; why was the 1946 tsunami so deadly?

One faulty factor in the warning system was the poor accuracy of the seismic recording devices, which were read only once a day after the film had been developed. Another major component lacking was communication by one central authority to issue a warning. After the devastation of the 1946 tsunami the U.S. reacted by setting up the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii in 1948. With one central location for collecting and disseminating data, scientists could compare observations and share information quicker. New devices designed by Fred Keller were installed at Tucson, Arizona; College, Alaska; and Honolulu, Hawaii (Dudley 48-49). Now current information was continuously available with a high rate of accuracy. A magnitude 7 or greater earthquake almost always generates a tsunami. So the question is: how do you warn people? When an earthquake is recorded alarms go off. Scientists then contact other seismic observatories to pinpoint the exact location of the earthquake. If the earthquake is close enough to the ocean, a warning is issued. Tide stations are also monitored for change in water levels. The fault in the early years was that someone had to physically monitor the equipment. This meant that if Joe Blow in Honolulu had gone fishing that day he was not available to monitor his station. As a result, data was sometimes not accurate or available. Another large obstacle was the slow process of manually calculating all the data. Needless to say, improvement in scientific technology, especially computers, has been the biggest boost to improvement of the warning system. Warnings have been issued, people have gone to higher ground, and then no tsunami arrives.

The false warnings frustrated people to the point they started to ignore them. The warnings also did not work because the emergency broadcast system had not been tested, and it did not always work. Regular testing of the emergency broadcast system, which uses television and radio to get the message out, was begun on a regular basis. If a tsunami is eminent, the watch is escalated to a warning. This is the same system used in Arizona for severe monsoon thunderstorms. But unlike tsunamis Arizonans can see the thunderclouds or the wall of dust coming. Another warning device the government uses is a series of sirens along the beach. In 1957, a warning had been issued and the sirens had gone off, but people still did not evacuate. The reason they did not heed the warnings was that in the past a series of sirens had preceded a tsunami. Someone had decided to change the system and did not bother to educate the public about the change, so many people were waiting for more warning sirens. Detailed evacuation, warning, and education procedures were further developed to bring consistency to the warning system.

Another major factor is an annual drill, to insure that all the components work together for a successful warning and evacuation. The head of the U.S. census bureau participated in the drill in 2003, making use of all the statistical census data about population and housing (RHH). Obviously, the best flood inundation data comes from actual tsunamis, but this type of data collection is slow and hazardous. So to speed up the collection of data without the risk of property damage or loss of life, scientists have developed computer simulation models to show the damage potential for tsunamis. This data is helping with evacuation and redevelopment planning. If the choice comes to build a shopping mall or school in a high impact area, this new data can show the community that it makes more sense to put in a golf course or park as a buffer zone. The most promising new technology is the Deep-Ocean Assessment and Recording of Tsunamis (DART), a device that can measure the change in pressure in the middle of the ocean (Gonzalez). DART is so sensitive that a change of a single centimeter can be detected; ship or storm waves cannot be detected because they do not change the pressure deep in the ocean (Gonzalez). After DART records the change, a signal is sent to a buoy at the ocean surface which then transmits a real time message via satellite to the tsunami warning center. President Bush has allocated $37.5 million over the next two years to expand the U.S tsunami detection and monitoring capabilities (RHH). This will allow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to deploy 32 new advanced-technology DART buoys (RHH). The science will be in place: So what education programs will help make use of this science?

The most comprehensive education and community preparedness program is the Tsunami Ready program. A community has to go through a complete series of checklists to be approved as compliant. An important factor is community education with readily available brochures, evacuation routes, and information in every telephone book, including hotel and condominium rooms. Of course, participation in the annual practice drills held every April 1 is standard. As a participating member in the program, a community posts tsunami ready warning and evacuation route signs (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Tsunami Ready warning and evacuation signs (RHH)

A new program for the tourist is being developed by the Hawaiian Tourism Authority to broadcast public service announcements that provide tsunami educational information when a hotel television is turned on (Hass). The Hawaiian Tourism Authority wants to focus on the welcoming Aloha Spirit, but they realize tourists do have safety concerns, so a special web site has been created to answer and alleviate those concerns (Hass). The website is As the world hears more and more about the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center taking the lead in the development of a world wide tsunami warning system, confidence is growing regarding Hawaii’s system. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has not failed to forecast a tsunami in 50 years (Defending). The long standing safety record is also something to be proud of. There has not been a death in America from a tsunami since 1975 (Defending). The warning systems are in place; the public is educated; do we still need to really expect more danger from tsunamis in the future?

Most scientific indicators point to the likelihood of tsunamis continuing into the future. One even says that another mega tsunami is eminent in Hawaii. A large undersea volcano has reformed larger than before, creating potential to be the biggest most destructive volcano posing a risk to Hawaii (Lorenzi). As mentioned before, the Pacific Ocean has one of the largest and most active tectonic plates in the world. It has more active volcanoes and earthquakes, giving it the nickname ring of fire. This risk does not mean residents and visitors should live in fear. It means they should be aware of the possibility and take action if needed. The focus on tsunami awareness is much more easily accomplished since the Indian Ocean disaster. So has Hawaii spread the word that its beaches are safe and that the warning system works?

There have always been tsunamis. The forces of nature that cause them will continue. The difference in Hawaii is the way tsunamis are handled and the importance that is placed on the knowledge about their effects. Tourism is the leading economic industry in Hawaii. The confidence that the tourists have in the tsunami warning system is critical to the continuation of a healthy tourist economy. This is why the more the public knows, the more confidence they have about the safety of Hawaii’s beaches and beachfront communities. The warning system is highly developed and will be followed more closely after the Indian Ocean disaster. The world is being educated every day about the safety of the existing Pacific Tsunami Warning System, as it takes the lead in the development of the rest of the world’s tsunami warning systems Americans receive current news of President Bush delegating millions of dollars to update the Pacific warning system and develop the Indian Ocean system. Such television shows as the Discovery Channel’s “Mega Tsunamis” show how the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center knew about the Indian Ocean disaster and tried desperately to contact anyone and everyone they could think of. The center finally realized that the factor missing was a communication warning system, rather than the knowledge that a tsunami was approaching. All this current news builds confidence that tourists can relax on Hawaii’s beaches because they have an effective warning system. The warning system, with its sophisticated technology, the excellent communication system, and long standing safety record will keep the pleasure in that tourist’s tropical vacation. If the need should occur, Hawaii is prepared to warn, evacuate, and protect the tourists if they choose to heed the warnings.

Works Cited

.Atwater, Brian F., Marco CisternasV., Joanne Bourgeois, Walter C. Dudley, James W. Hendley II, and Peter H. Stauffer. “Surviving a Tsunami—Lessons from Chile, Hawaii, and Japan.” U.S. Geological Survey. 1187. 1. 1999,

13 Mar. 2005. <>.

An online report compiled for the US Geological Survey with tips for surviving a tsunami. Illustrations demonstrating the formation and action of a tsunami are included. Illustrations are also given showing the different tectonic plates involved in the Pacific Ocean region.

.“Defending Against Tsunamis.” The Why Files. University of Wisconsin. 30 July 1998. 1-3.

23 Feb. 2005 < >.
This is a brief online article from the University of Wisconsin summarizing protection from the dangers of tsunamis and understanding the warning signs. The background and statistics covering the safety record of the Pacific tsunami warning system are included.

.Dudley, Walter C., and Min Lee. Tsunami!. University of Hawaii Press, 1988.

Dudley gives a detailed account of the history of tsunamis in Hawaii with Lee’s personal survivor interviews and the impact the tsunamis had on their lives. The scientific evolvement of the warning system, including reasons the early system did not work and the improvements that are continuing to be made, are noted. The major causes of tsunamis and how they affect the islands’ people and property are discussed

Gonzalez, Frank I. “Tsunami!” Scientific American. May 1999:56-65. EBSCO Host. Glendale Community College Library Media Center, Glendale, AZ. 31 Jan. 2005.

Gonzalez provides a scientific exploration of the worst world tsunamis, including the Aleutian Island earthquake and landslide event which caused the Hilo Hawaii tsunami in 1946. The technology of the warning system is also explained.

.Hass, Frank. Hawaii Tourism Authority. 2005.

3 Mar. 2005 <>.
Mr. Hass was my primary source for an e-mail interview involving the advertising, and education efforts concerning the Pacific Tsunami Warning System for the tourism industry.

“Hawaii (state).” Microsoft Encarta OnlineEncyclopedia 1993-2005:12-15.

3 Feb. 2005 <>.
This encyclopedia article provides current information about the climate, soils, plant life, animal life, and economic conditions of the state of Hawaii. This basic information is available to anyone.

.Lorenzi, Rossella. “Top World Tsunami Hotspots Detailed.” Discovery News, Discovery Channel. 11 Jan. 2005. 15 Feb. 2005

Lorenzi’s news clip is a very brief online summary of the most dangerous hotspots for future mega tsunami activity around the world.

.Nilsen, Robert. Hawaii: The All-Island Guide. Avalon Travel Publishing 6th edition, 2001. 47-50.

Nilsen provides an intensive tourist guide to Hawaii. It includes history, government, statehood, climate, geography, and economic development for a thorough understanding of the state when planning a trip. The book gives details about sights to see, places to stay, how to get around, and where to eat as well as the basics to plan a trip. Nelsen goes in-depth about the impact of tourism on the economy, the history or start of tourism, and the growth of mass tourism.

.Pendick, Daniel. “A Deadly Force.” PBS Online, Savage Earth: Waves of Destruction. Jan 2005. 1-5.

23 Feb. 2005 <>.
Pendick’s PBS television channel’s online article explains tsunamis and their causes. The difference between tsunamis, tidal waves, and storm surges is explored.

.RHH Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Web site updated daily.

15 Mar. 2005 <>.

This is official web site of the National Weather Service for the Richard H. Hagemeyer Pacific Tsunami Warning Center located in Hawaii. Details are shared about the warning center’s mission, history, daily tsunami activity, the tsunami ready program, brochures concerning tsunami safety rules, and much more about the ongoing development of the world tsunami warning system.

.Tregaskis, Moana. Hawaii. Compass American Guides Fodor’s Travel Publications, Inc., Third edition 1996. 39-42.

Tregaskis gives a complete travel guide with photographs of Hawaii. It also includes its history, culture, economy, maps, and essays about Hawaiian life. An island by island breakdown listing is given of sightseeing, accommodations, food, travel, history, and culture to use in planning a visit to Hawaii. Details of the tourist industry are given from its beginning, the focus to expand the market, and today’s present impact of tourism on the Hawaiian economy.

.“Tsunami.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 1993-2005. 1-9.

2 Feb. 2005 <>.
This brief encyclopedia article introduces tsunamis, their scientific causes, and the effect they can have. The article discusses the history of some of the worst tsunamis and where and how they occurred. The events leading to the development of the tsunami warning system are briefly investigated.

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