Thursday, 2 October 2008

I mustn't forget

It should be drummed into me by now but I never remember, perhaps because I'm either on the mountain, at work in Hilo in a relatively sound-proof building or at home, my ear-drums being destroyed by the infestation of coqui frogs. Or perhaps I'm just getting older. Yesterday, however, I took an early lunch break and was walking right under one of the Hawai`i Civil Defense sirens when it went off. Boy, did my heart miss a couple of beats or what? Those things are loud.

What I'd forgotten, again, is that on the first weekday of every month the sirens are tested along with the early warning system for broadcast media. The sirens are used to warn people of an emergency such as a hurricane, but everyone here is more familiar with their use to warn of a tsunami.

Everyone remembers the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 that killed hundreds of thousands of people; perhaps fewer remember the tsunamis that killed more people in Hawai`i in the 20th century than all the other Hawai`ian natural disasters and that concerns me. The population on this island has increased by an incredible amount in the last few years and people are building houses right on the coastline. Many of these families are from the mainland and might not be as aware of the tsunami threat as the locals, but even people that have lived here all their lives may not have experienced a large tsunami as the last big one was nearly 50 years ago.

Hawai`i is quite unique when it comes to the threat as it lies in the centre of the "Ring of Fire" and is subject to tsunamis generated from anywhere in the Pacific. Fortunately there is now a rather sophisticated early warning system but it will do little to help if the tsunami is generated locally. In that case we'll have only minutes to react.

The picture above (credit: NOAA) is of the first waves crashing into Hilo harbor during the 1946 event. The arrow points to a man who didn't survive. This will happen again one day, I just hope people living here realise that.

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