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Tsunami Prep, Hawaii: "Vertical Evacuation"

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At literally the eleventh hour, a.m. Hawaii time, a 12-foot tsunami generated by the massive 8.8 magnitude Chilean earthquake is predicted to strike our seven inhabited isles. First landfall: the Big Island, where 61 people died in 1960 when a tsunami took out Hilo after a magnitude 9.6 Chilean tremblor. Last September, after the devastating Samoan quake, Hawaii harbors and beaches experienced a 2-foot surge that grounded a few boats after a tsunami warning was downgraded to an advisory. No one drowned, even though the surge washed over the breakwater at Waikiki, where small children and non-swimmers sport in normally shallow waters.

This time it's a full-on warning, and residents of low-lying coastal zones are supposed to leave, except for tourists in high-rise hotels. For tourists, there is "vertical evacuation," a term I've never heard before. It means that guests shouldn't leave their hotels. Instead, they should go above the third floor, where, they are told, they will be safe.

"If coastal areas are evacuated, visitors in Waikiki would be moved to higher floors in their hotels, rather than moved out of the tourist district, which could cause gridlock," reports the AP.

Meanwhile, island residents have been driving around like crazy since before dawn, topping off their gas tanks and shopping for the emergency items the television news is telling them to get, including enough food and water for seven days.

With memories of the South Asian tsunami's devastation forever fresh, why are visitors being told not to leave their hotels? It's simple: It's bad for tourism if Hawaii and its hotels appear unsafe or even uncomfortable in any way. When it comes to rainy weather, pollution or impending disaster, in these islands whose number one industry is tourism, no news is good news. That's why no warning signs were posted on Waikiki beaches until six days after millions of gallons of raw sewage from a broken main darkened normally turquoise waters in 2006. Even then, beaches weren't closed. And in contrast with media in Mainland cities, which posts daily air quality reports indicating when smog and soot reach unhealthy levels, it's a rare occasion when Hawaiin media issues warnings about vog -- or volcanic smog -- which regularly thickens Oahu, Maui and Big Island air with lung-damaging sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.

Apparently the visitor industry won't tolerate vacancy rates rising, even for a day.

Indeed, the print issue of today's Star-Bulletin places the tsunami advisory on page 5, while the front page displays the headline, "Tourists Returning."

We live near Waikiki, on the lower slope of Diamond Head, two short blocks from the sea. The warning sirens went off at 6 a.m., and they're going off again now, although much more faintly than the first-of-the-month test blasts. (According to the T.V. news, the Waikiki siren is down. Hmmm....) Soon I have to head for the hills. The fire trucks are circulating through the lower neighborhood with their loudspeakers blasting, "Attention. Attention. This is an emergency evacuation. Head for higher ground. Do not delay."

But are we in the evacuation zone? We're in the upper neighborhood, on the mountainside, or mauka, of Diamond Head Road. The warning trucks are sticking to the road itself, or makai of it. In the Internet and mobile age, television news says look in our phone books for tsunami evacuation zone maps. Uh-oh, good green citizen, did you already recycle yours? Tsk-tsk, you're supposed to keep the new ones. KHON, the NBC affiliate, suggests looking at their website, but provides no URL. All the government evacuation websites have crashed.

Our phone book map says we're okay where we are. Still, "Water's very fluid, so you never know," as cute weather forecaster Justin Fujioka says.

So we're about to head for the hills, literally, hiking up Diamond Head behind and above our house.

Before I set forth, GreenerPenny has to provide a note on how we are disaster prepping green:

  1. We walk, don't drive, out of the evacuation zone. After all, we're lucky... We were alerted as soon as the Chilean quake struck, 15 hours before any tsunami could reach Hawaii.
  2. We're filling bottles with tap water to take with us.

Already shoppers have congested the aisles of Safeway and Costco. I took out and filled my lightweight stainless steel bottles. One of them has a built-in filter, which is cool. But in a disaster, any clean bottle you can refill will do. Forget about the hormone-disrupting plastic chemical bisphenol-A, just for a day! I can't believe I said that.

So we're off. Will keep you posted.

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