BDN reporter heads for high ground in Hawaii

Posted March 11, 2011, at 9:53 p.m.

KIHEI, Hawaii — As someone who has done more than my share of long-distance driving and “car camping” over the years, I’m accustomed to catching a few uncomfortable Zs in a bucket seat. I have never done it with seven other members of my family and hundreds of strangers, however.

Just before 11 p.m., my family’s two rental minivans joined dozens of other cars that invaded a quiet, hillside residential neighborhood on Maui and waited for news about the walls of water reportedly en route to Hawaii from Japan.

A few people in the growing crowd brought beer. Others brought lawn chairs. Nearly everyone had pillows, blankets, extra water, clothes and other essentials, just in case.

I had noticed the “tsunami sirens” located — ironically, I thought — all along Maui’s breathtakingly beautiful shoreline soon after landing on the island last weekend for a long-planned family reunion. I had hoped we’d make it off the island without hearing them blare. But our experiences late Thursday into Friday made me appreciate the well-coordinated warning system put in place as well as the laid-back feel of the Aloha State.

The night’s activities began between 9 and 9:30 p.m. Maui-time (2 to 2:30 a.m. EST) when, after enjoying a home-cooked dinner along the waterfront, we heard that all of Hawaii was under a tsunami watch.

My family and I were still reading the evacuation instructions for our area of Maui when the “watch” became a “warning.” And we were loading bags into our cars when the sirens began to blare around 10 p.m.

All coastal areas were under an evacuation order. But thanks to tsunami detection buoys  located thousands of miles away, everyone in Maui had 5 hours advance notice — plenty of time to make the short drive to higher ground on such a small, mountainous island. Traffic was heavy but flowed smoothly except near gas stations, where cars were lined up 30 deep.

More than a dozen cars were already parked in the neighborhood near the town of Kihei by the time we arrived. Dozens more came after us.

There were Hawaiian natives and other locals with their children, dogs and pickup trucks. The good-spirited couple parked just behind us remarked they would rather be stuck outside in the star-filled, 72-degree Hawaiian winter night than in their hometown located in Canada’s Yukon Territory. One man had barely stepped foot off of his plane in Maui when the tsunami warning was issued. Welcome to Hawaii, someone said with a laugh.

Despite the serious reason that brought everyone together, the atmosphere was social, even lively.

Most people tried to get a few hours of restless sleep. But as 3 a.m. approached, car interiors glowed with the lights from their radios as people tuned to local stations for news.

The tsunami arrived later than expected and with far less intensity than feared, flooding low-lying roads, damaging a few harbors and causing property damage in some areas. But Hawaii appeared to sidestep the enormous waves and storm surges that had wrought destruction in parts of Japan and, to a lesser extent, some parts of the West Coast.

Although spared severe damage, many Hawaiians obviously feel the pain of Japan’s losses deeply. The two cultures are closely linked, and the tropical islands swarm with Japanese tourists, a few of whom also took refuge in the same neighborhood as my family. Local radio stations relayed news about events in Japan and occasionally carried recommendations for Japanese visitors stuck far from home and family.

We were, of course, very fortunate. By late morning we were back at our largely unscathed rental complex while outside people were once again soaking up the sun or strolling the palm-lined beaches like nothing happened.

This is, after all, Hawaii, a state that may have not have invented the easy-going way of living but certainly epitomizes it, threats of tsunamis and all. The TV news reports were a somber reminder, however, that while Hawaiians and their guests — like my family — escaped nature’s wrath this time, many other people and families on a clump of islands to our west were not so fortunate.

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