Commentary on Tsunami Sirens by Councilman Pete Hoffmann – “The Sounds of Silence”

Councilman Pete Hoffman

Councilman Pete Hoffmann

Last Saturday evening, we were visited once again by a frequent, if not welcomed, visitor, i.e. the threat of a tsunami. This was the third such event in the past 32 months and permitted island residents and agencies to participate in what is fast becoming an island staple, “the annual evacuation drill”. Fortunately, the threat remained exactly that. Some Saturday night festivities and events were cancelled or curtailed, many took to the roads seeking higher ground, others raced to the gas stations and local markets to ‘top off’ or stock-up (on what I’m not certain??), evacuation centers were opened, and in general residents displayed a growing non-chalance that is becoming part of the fabric of life on an island in the Pacific Ocean.

For the most part, our County first responders, Civil Defense, CERT volunteers and others performed with a degree of professionalism that comes from repeated ‘drills’. There will always be problems of some kind, and glitches will occur no matter how often the system is exercised. However, I agree with Mayor Kenoi when he notes that County personnel accomplished tasks in an outstanding fashion.

So am I the only one who remains concerned about our preparedness? In the rush to ‘pat ourselves on the back for a job well done’ I continue to question why considerable portions of our coastline with sizeable developments do not have any tsunami sirens. Why is it that after two previous tsunamis, some resort areas do not have a single siren in place? Didn’t we stress this danger last year and the year before?? Didn’t it take some legislative arm-wrestling to convince County officials that some zoning regulations need to be introduced to insure residents in those areas, most vulnerable to a tsunami have sufficient warning? Wasn’t the County supposed to follow-up with State officials to insure this situation doesn’t happen? Doesn’t this fall within the public health and safety mandates of our County government?? Despite the obvious dangers, Tsunami #3 came and there remain too many built up areas that lack a siren capability.

Do not misunderstand. A functioning siren system may not be the only or even the best warning capability. It takes, I believe, a combination of several components to provide our residents an effective early warning structure. My fear is that for some on our island, particularly along our coastlines, a siren is a critical ingredient that must be operational to provide the broad coverage so necessary for public safety. The silence along some portions of our coast is truly deafening.

Consider for a moment the timeframe involved: the February 2010 event allowed us 13+ hours lead time. The March 2011 event permitted us a seven hour warning. Last Saturday’s exercise cut that time to three hours. Does anyone see a pattern here?? My concern is that the next event may allow the County perhaps one hour or less to evacuate large numbers of people from our coastline. And knowing that our luck may finally run out, it will be in the dead of night when the visitor count is high and our snow-birds are here.

Before we “pat ourselves on the back” too much, we must return to basics. We are not as prepared as we think we are if sirens remain absent from many vulnerable areas. We are fooling ourselves if we think we are ready. We must make this deficiency a persistent and vocal objective of our County government now, not in the short-term, but immediately. Enough talk and promises. Solutions are required now and if sirens are lacking, some effective alternative must be put in place. This public health and safety shortfall cannot be permitted to exist when our next “annual tsunami drill” occurs. The sounds of silence must not continue.

Pete Hoffmann

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