UPDATED 3/14/11 11:30 a.m.

Most Hawaii residents were glued to TV, radio and online reports from the moment they heard about the tsunami Thursday evening until the all clear was sounded Friday.

We were fortunate to have major lines of media fully engaged with the crisis, and government officials and experts at the ready to keep the state updated on important developments.

Glaringly absent, however, were the websites of state and county government, including emergency and civil defense sites that a concerned resident might logically go to for critical information.

For example, a full 10 hours after the first tsunami wave began hitting Hawaii shores, the only information on the City & County of Honolulu’s main website — in a section called Honolulu News — was a link to a brief note that refuse pickup was cancelled Friday because of the natural disaster but would resume Saturday.

There was no update on the tsunami itself, no useful information about possible damage on Oahu or places to avoid, no comforting message from Mayor Peter Carlisle. Click the link and you found a statement from Carlisle that began, “Welcome to Honolulu, E Komo Mai!”

Hannemann’s Twitter Handle Bests Carlisle’s

Twitter has proved itself to be a highly efficient disseminator of news, and there was tsunami info to be found from government-related tweets.

Go to the section titled “Follow the City on Twitter” and go to “City Information.” Six helpful tweets under the handle @HNL_Info, including one announcing the issuance of a tsunami warning (at 10:38 p.m.) and identifying refuge locations, a warning to evacuate all coastal areas and the mayor’s “all clear” at 8:26 a.m.

At 9:42 a.m., another tweet advised, “Tsunami Advisory remains in effect until noon. Residents and visitors urged to remain out of the ocean and away from coastline.”

Helpful if you use Twitter, that is — and depending on whom you follow. The last tweet from the mayor on Twitter handle hnl_mayor is dated Oct. 23: “Inauguration down, hike up Mariner’s this morning, getting some family time in this weekend.”

Carlisle has only 439 followers, so no big deal. But Carlisle’s predecesor, Mufi Hannemann, has 587,780 followers, and they may have appreciated Hannemann’s tweets.

Hannemann’s first of more than 30 tweets for @MufiHannemann came at 8:50 p.m.: “8.8 Magnitude quake strikes Japan. Tsunami watch in effect for Hawaii.” It included a link to Hawaii News Now‘s story. What followed was similarly useful.

To be fair to Carlisle, he was very busy throughout the night, and his frequent appearances on television demonstrated a commanding and reassuring presence. No jokes or mugging for the camera this time.

But if you didn’t have access to a television and had to rely on online information from the city about the tsunami, you would have found it was very limited.

Tough To Locate Gov’t Updates

The city’s primary source for emergencies, the Department of Emergency Management, did have useful information, including evacuation maps and tips on putting together a survival kit. There were also links to civil defense agencies, airports and weather services.

But unless one thought to search for “Department of Emergency Management,” one might not have known it existed. Why not, at minimum, place a link to the page in a prominent position on the city’s homepage?

It was much the same with the state’s online presence.

As of Sunday, on the state’s official site there was still no mention of the word “tsunami” on the home page. The most recent news was an update on the power outage to Oahu homes triggered by storms — dated March 6. (The tsunami warning went out late March 10.)

By typing the word “tsunami” into the state’s search box, viewers are directed to Hawaii State Civil Defense. Here, as of Sunday evening, there was useful information to be found:

There is no indication that the nuclear power plant incidents in Japan will have an effect on Hawaii at this time. The incident is currently rated at Level 4, Accident with Local Consequences, on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (visit this site for more information). For perspective, the Three Mile Island event was a Level 5 and Chernobyl was a Level 7. You can also visit the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Website.

But very little helpful information was to be found on the evening of March 10 and well into March 11. I know this only because I was in the Civil Beat newsroom and hitting “refresh” every few minutes as I checked Civil Defense’s website and others.

The site did make clear that a tsunami was coming around 3 a.m. Friday. But, clicking my cursor up and down the page, I couldn’t find much more info, with the exception of a FEMA link to disaster information on tsunami. Example: “Tsunamis (pronounced soo-ná-mees), also known as seismic sea waves (mistakenly called ‘tidal waves’), are a series of enormous waves created by an underwater disturbance such as an earthquake, landslide, volcanic eruption, or meteorite.”

UPDATE The most recent press releases I saw that night and morning were several days old. Again, maybe it was my human error (like most people, I was working well past my bedtime).1

Then, when I checked the Hawaii State Civil Defense website late Sunday I saw no less than two press releases dated March 10 on the tsunami warning and four on March 11!

I definitely found no useful information on another website, the governor’s official one. Instead, Neil Abercrombie‘s Photoshopped face stared benignly back at me.

Like Mayor Carlise, the governor and his staff had more important things to worry about than updating a website. And, gradually, press releases were added Friday to the governor’s page.

And, like Carlisle, the governor has a Twitter handle, @neilabercrombie. But his first tweet of the night (or whoever did the honors) did not come until shortly after midnight, several hours after the warning sirens had sounded. It linked to his first press release of the evening — er, morning. Not exacty breaking news.

Models to Follow?

By contrast, consider the thoroughness with which other government websites have provided information about the tsunami.

Front and center: The United States Embassy in Japan’s website is thorough, very useful and up-to-date, and it’s all on the homepage, not buried in a press release or a link.

As of Sunday night (or early Monday in Japan), the lead items were headlined as follows:

• Travel Alert – Japan, March 14, 2011

• USAID Fact Sheet – Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

• White House Press Statement – Ongoing U.S. Response to the Earthquakes and Tsunami in Japan

• Fact Sheet on the Current Situation

Members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation sent out advisories on this site and others, and included the sites on their own official government websites.

The top item on Sen. Daniel K. Inouye‘s website as of Sunday was a link titled “Information from the Department of State on Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.”

And on Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s website there is a photo of flooded, burning Japan and a link titled “Emergency Assistance for Constituents in Japan.”

That’s the kind of information concerned people are looking for in time of disaster.

  1. I spoke with Shelly Ichishita of Hawaii State Civil Defense Monday morning, and she told Civil Beat that she updated the agency’s website during the tsunami. She also says Civil Defense can be followed on Twitter at handle HI_civildefense, although we were unsuccessful in locating it on the Civil Defense homepage.

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