Despite Kahului Harbor seeing the largest of Saturday night's tsunami waves to hit Hawaii, Maui County appears to have sustained no major damage to coastal areas.
County officials were still assessing the damage Sunday afternoon after waves as high as 5 feet were recorded at the harbor following a 7.7-magnitude earthquake off British Columbia that triggered a statewide tsunami warning and subsequent evacuations of all coastal areas.
Maui County Civil Defense downgraded the warning to an advisory around 1 a.m. Sunday, and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu canceled a statewide advisory at 4 a.m.
A debris line at D.T. Fleming Beach Park shows the tsunami’s high-water mark Sunday morning at Kapalua.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
The county is seeking residents' help with reporting any tsunami-related damages, said Maui County spokesman Rod Antone. Information and photos can be emailed to Antone at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday marked the third time in a two-and-a-half-year span that the islands were under a tsunami warning. Responding to those recent events helped Maui's first responders and emergency personnel carry out successful evacuation efforts this time around, according to a Maui Civil Defense official.
"Our first responder community in terms of police, fire, public works, utilities, airports and harbors have been through this a couple times and were able to execute plans in terms of protecting life and property fairly quickly," said Anna Foust, Maui County Civil Defense emergency management officer.
"Overall, the impression or feeling we got was that county assets were able to respond in a very quick time and conduct the evacuation in a safe manner," she said.
Maui Civil Defense had ordered residents in low-lying coastal areas to immediately evacuate starting at around 8:30 p.m. Saturday, about an hour after the tsunami warning center had issued its statewide warning.
By 9 p.m., Maui High School had been opened as an evacuation site, followed by Lahainaluna High School. All roads in inundation zones were closed off around 9:30 p.m.
Lt. Col. Randal Leval of the Maui Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol based at Kahului Airport said Saturday night's nearly full moon helped with evacuation efforts as his crew flew over the island's shoreline with blaring sirens.
"The moon was pretty much overhead at the time of the flights and it was the best visibility for our flight crew," Leval said. "We did a couple extra fly-bys around the Lahaina area because of concerns about a lot of folks possibly being on the beaches. Other than that, it was pretty routine. Everything went as planned, and luckily, we dodged the bullet."
The biggest challenge Saturday night, Foust said, was the short window between the warning being issued and the first expected wave.
"When it's a very short time frame like what we had that night, where we're looking at just under three hours until the first wave arrives, the mobilization of our county resources to conduct an evacuation and move assets out of the way to be available for responding is critical," she said.
She recalled about a 15-hour window before the February 2010 tsunami triggered by an earthquake in Chile, and between six and eight hours before the first wave was forecasted to hit following the Japan earthquake of March 2011.
Despite the short time frame, Foust said she "got the sense that people were more calm this time and seemed more orderly."
As waves started coming in below the actual warning level, scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center had suggested the evacuations may have been unnecessary.
Gerard Fryer, a senior geophysicist at the center, had said late Saturday night that it appeared the tsunami's impact had been "over predicted."
Still, Foust cautioned that residents continue to heed warnings.
"We're just so grateful again that we were spared this time. I'd caution that people don't become complacent," she said. "Each event is different. . . . There just is not enough information to accurately say what will happen in terms of the wave heights or if waves will be destructive once it comes ashore. When the tsunami warning center puts us into a warning, it will still mean that we take imminent action."
Foust said that the county is working to establish additional evacuation areas.
She said that during tsunami evacuations, refuge sites are in place to get residents to higher ground versus actual shelters that are set up when residents are unable to safely return to their homes.
In addition to the two high schools that opened up their facilities to the public Saturday night, Foust said county community centers and other public schools had parking lots available to the public.
"During a tsunami evacuation, our most critical objection is life safety, and that happens when people get out of the inundation areas," she said. "After we assess the impact, then we would determine if we need to open full-on shelters if people can't return to their homes."
She encouraged residents living in low-lying areas to have an evacuation plan in place.
"Now's the time to figure out if you live or work in an inundation area and to know if you have a place to go," Foust said.
She recommended an online evacuation zone mapping tool available on the state Civil Defense website at www.scd.hawaii.gov.
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at email@example.com.