Minutes before the tsunami was expected to hit the Hawaiian Islands, one of the main roads leading into Ala Moana Beach Park was wide open. There were no flares, no roadblocks and no police officers restricting access to Atkinson Drive.

A few blocks away, on Piikoi Street, a half-dozen homeless people waited on the sidewalk to meet their fate, some of them physically unable to walk themselves to higher ground. Security guards would not allow them onto the second story of the Ala Moana Center parking deck.

A 55-year-old homeless man who said he suffered from cardiac problems and a spinal injury, told us he had, by then, accepted that he was on his own. A cab or bus ride would cost him money he did not have, he said.

Fortunately, the waves that struck Oahu did not flood the streets or cause loss of life. But the police, who were in charge of closing off designated inundation zones, could not give a good reason for why streets leading to inundation zones were left open. And the city didn’t have a good explanation for why some homeless were left behind.

What We Saw

Law enforcement and government officials in Honolulu had made clear that tsunami evacuation zones would be closed off by 2 a.m. on March 11.

But there were no roadblocks into the Kapiolani Park area. And from 2:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. that night, Civil Beat reporters didn’t spot a single police officer manning the blockades along Kapiolani Boulevard near Ala Moana.

A little before 5 a.m., a half dozen emergency workers were spotted putting away Honolulu Fire Department equipment at the fire station on Kaheka and Makaloa streets.

Meanwhile, people on the Waianae Coast reported to Civil Beat that the Leeward area’s only emergency evacuation route to central Oahu was closed — and had been since January due to rain washout.

Farrington Highway runs along the coast, and in the event it is closed during a natural disaster or other emergency, the federally-controlled Lualualei Naval Road is the only emergency evacuation alternative, according to a report from the Legislative Reference Bureau published last November.

Moving Homeless

Sam Moku, director of Honolulu’s Department of Community Services, said his department was responsible for evacuating homeless to higher ground. On the night of the tsunami, Moku said his department worked with homeless service providers to alert the homeless about the potential danger.

“A lot of them don’t have radios, so sometimes it’s going tent by tent and letting them know,” he said.

City buses were taking homeless — and their pets — to safer areas from Kakaako Waterfront Park, the North Shore and the Leeward Coast, he said.

Moku said some homeless on the North Shore refused to get on buses, but he couldn’t offer a good explanation for why many homeless at Ala Moana and Kapiolani Park were left behind.

“I think people don’t take the tsunami warnings seriously. When push comes to shove, what will we do to save a life. Where’s our boundary? Do we just grab them and throw them into the van?” he said.

Closing Roads

Honolulu Fire Department spokesman said the Honolulu Police Department is the agency primarily responsible for setting up roadblocks and managing traffic flow along evacuation routes.

But a Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman said the agency isn’t solely responsible. It shares that responsibility with others — including the Fire Department.

“Officers assist in setting up roadblocks, managing traffic flow along evacuation routes, and issuing warnings in and near evacuation zones,” police spokeswoman Michelle Yu wrote in an e-mail. “After the event, officers may prevent public access to unsafe or damaged areas of the island. Siren warnings and radio/TV stations are used to broadcast the latest evacuation information to the public, and emergency agencies rely on the public’s cooperation in heeding these messages. Disaster evacuation is voluntary, unless the Governor or Mayor issues an emergency proclamation.”

Her e-mail said that although roadblocks are “mainly set up along coastal roadways and staffed by officers.” But first responders are also instructed to leave the evacuation area 30 minutes before a tsunami is expected to hit.

Yu told Civil Beat on the phone that Atkinson Drive may not have been closed because there were too many routes into the inundation zone to close them all. Later, she said the department had all the supplies it needed during the evacuation and did not speculate about why that road did not have flares to warn motorists against entering.

“The visible part — what people see — is a joint activity that we do with the Police Department and the Department of Emergency Management to warn people,” said Seelig, the Fire Department spokesman.

“There is a whole preparation and planning part is not really visible because it’s done in our facilities — the city’s Emergency Operating Center and also at our Fire Department headquarters,” he explained. “Most of that doesn’t get seen, but there’s a lot going on.”

The operating centers direct commanders and managers in the field at various phases of preparation, warning and then refuge.

The phases for the Fire Department are:

1. Preparing Facilities. Some fire facilities are located in inundation zones and need to be evacuated, and the portable equipment taken to a safe place.

2. Warning People. While the department is taking care of its equipment and facilities, it is simultaneously working with the city’s Emergency Operating Center to describe what message all response agencies will communicate to the public. Fire Department members help announce the impending danger by going through the streets and using their public address systems. The goal is to reach people who may not have heard the civil defense sirens. In the case of Friday’s tsunami warning, the fire department announced that people in inundation zones had to be out by 2 a.m. At 2, emergency personnel got out of the inundation zones and moved into the third phase.

3. Seek Refuge. Employees in stations that are vulnerable to impact go to higher ground. All personnel keep in touch with the department’s dispatch and respond to calls outside the inundation zone. The department’s policy is that once the roadblocks are up, responders aren’t going to be able to go back in. For emergency calls inside the inundation zone, they do still try to assess the hazard associated with whatever is going on. The department received calls during last Friday’s evacuation about activated fire alarms in high-rise buildings, Seelig said, but they were all system malfunctions. The department’s helicopter also swept along the island’s coastline to keep an eye out for civilians in distress.

4. Respond to Emergency/Assess Damage. Presuming that in Friday’s case an actual tsunami had hit the island, Seelig said, the Fire Department would have responded to emergency needs. In this case, after Emergency Operating Center issued the all-clear, the fire department was assigned to check on certain areas to ensure they had not sustained damage.

“We’re pretty robust in our capabilities to begin with, because of our apparatus and our staffing allow us to be an all- hazards department,” Seelig said.

About the Author