Every time Hawaii issues a tsunami warning, it’s an “all or nothing” evacuation.

From Waianae to Hawaii Kai, everyone who lives within a potential tsunami inundation zone heads for the hills — or the other side of the evacuation line, at least.

But federal scientists have developed new tsunami forecasting models that can accurately predict where a wave will hit, and where it will flood. They’ve also designed new buoys that could help the tsunami warning center fill the gaps in its net.

So why hasn’t Hawaii embraced the new technology?

The Oct. 27 tsunami warning threw Hawaii into a panic with just three hours between the evacuation call and when the first wave hit.

Now, some say these new technologies are worth a closer look.

“Right now it’s the whole state or nothing,” said Chip McCreery, director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. “Would it be possible to say, OK, these are the areas where we think there’s going to be bigger impacts, but here are some other areas where we think the impacts only require an advisory, not a full scale evacuation.”

The state is grappling with how to better handle tsunami warnings. The city of Honolulu and the Legislature held a joint briefing at the state Capitol on Friday to talk through the issues.

But the meeting focused on sirens that didn’t work, increasing public awareness about evacuation zones and how to manage traffic jams created by a full coastal retreat.

Government officials don’t seem to be ready to consider modifying the evacuation maps yet.

“Should we have more than one evacuation zone? Luckily it’s not for me to say, but we’re having enough problems right now educating the public on what to do with a single evacuation zone,” Doug Mayne, vice director of Hawaii State Civil Defense, told Civil Beat. “I think the key is to keep it as simple as possible so that our education is simple and just getting people to understand where they are.”

Predicting Where the Wave Will Hit

Tsunami forecasting is a very new technology, one that’s come into vogue since the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed 230,000.

Eight years later, scientists have developed a tsunami flood forecasting model that they’ve tested on more than 40 events this year alone.

“This idea to forecast tsunami flooding has been the holy grail of tsunami research,” said Vasily Titov, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Tsunami Research. “This idea has been around for years, but the problem is we’ve never had models accurate enough and never had data. But now we do.”

With the Oct. 27 tsunami, Titov said the models did what they were supposed to do.

“We nailed the amplitudes pretty well before the first tsunami arrived,” he said. “But it didn’t ease the weight of the decision to evacuate or not evacuate. It was a borderline event, it was difficult to call.”

The tsunami wave peaked at 1.9 feet. It was Hawaii’s third or fourth largest tsunami event since 1964.

Mayne, with State Civil Defense, said tsunami waves carry 10,000 times more power than a surf wave of the same size. He added that studies done in Japan have shown that a tsunami wave of about 1.5 feet can sweep a grown man off his feet.

Localized flood forecasts, if integrated into disaster planning, could mean for example that county officials evacuate Haleiwa but put the south shore on an advisory.

It would be one alternative to throwing the entire island into chaos whenever there’s a tsunami warning.

McCreery, at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, plans to float the idea of using localized tsunami forecast information at a tsunami planning meeting with state and county officials next month.

But whether government officials have the wherewithal to incorporate such real-time information in their disaster planning is another story.

Titov said he understood state officials’ desire to avoid confusing residents with multiple evacuation plans.

“Making it simple is a good idea,” he said. “But then again, if it’s over simplified, what’s the value of the system? We have new tools, so the system can be adjusted and made more efficient.”

Where Do We Buy More Buoys?

At Friday’s tsunami briefing at the state Capitol, one lawmaker asked whether we ought to be looking at getting more buoys.

The tsunami warning center issued the tsunami warning so belatedly on Oct. 27 in part because they didn’t have a buoy off the coast of British Columbia, where the earthquake struck.

The U.S. maintains 39 DART buoys in the Pacific.

“We only had a certain number, so we put them where we thought had the most possibility of there being an event we’d have to deal with,” McCreery said.

But there’s always that freak event that happens where it’s not supposed to.

McCreery said that British Columbia historically has never produced a tsunami. It’s the wrong kind of fault line for that, he said.

“If we had a buoy there, I’m certain it would have helped. But we could put a buoy there and it could be another 200 years before another event happens,” he said.

The buoys themselves aren’t very expensive — McCreery estimated they cost between $100,000 and $200,000. But maintaining them costs millions.

The buoys are large. They’re 8 feet in diameter and weigh about 4,000 pounds. They have to be serviced every year and require a large ship to handle the buoy and to make it to the many far flung areas of open ocean where buoys are stationed. A servicing trip that can last months costs about $20,000 to $25,000 a day, McCreery said.

But federal budget cuts have meant that not every buoy gets serviced.

“This last year they didn’t have as much money so they made some compromises on the servicing,” he said.

For example, there are two buoys in the South Pacific near Chile — a region that has produced at least four significant tsunamis that hit the Hawaiian Islands.

Budget cuts last year meant that NOAA only serviced the buoy off the coast of Chile but skipped the one closer to French Polynesia.

A Newer, Lighter Buoy

With budget constraints in mind, federal researchers in Seattle spent the last five years developing a new buoy that would be cheaper to maintain.

“We’ve been able to shrink things down so that they can be deployed from a small fishing boat,” said Christian Meinig, director of engineering at the Pacific Marine Environmental Lab.

These buoys were tested for three years in deep waters off Hawaii and are already being sold to other countries. Russia bought one two months ago. Australia has five. Indonesia has two.

Ironically, NOAA — our own U.S. agency that paid to have these buoys developed — isn’t using them yet. 

“They’re available today if they want to do it,” Meinig said. “It’s really a choice on a manager’s level.”

These new buoys are about half the size and half the weight. They last longer and only need maintenance every other year. Moreover, the work can be done by a fisherman and a skilled crew, rather than an oceanographic research boat, he said.

The buoys, called DART-ETD (easy-to-deploy), will eventually replace all the older DART buoys. For now, Meinig says he’s been advocating for these to be used as “hot spares.”

“If a critical buoy is going out, we can rapidly fill in the capability with something that doesn’t take a major oceanographic expedition,” he said.

Here’s a video and some diagrams, courtesy of NOAA, of the new DART-ETD buoys:

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