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Maui was spared a tsunami hit Tuesday
September 30, 2009

September 30, 2009

Maui was spared a tsunami hit Tuesday, but parts of the island saw unusual tidal activity as a result of a massive earthquake earlier in Samoa.

Lahaina Harbor Master Hal Silva said around 2 p.m. that the sea level was rising and falling by about 2 feet over 10-minute intervals.

"It's as if someone pulled the plug on the ocean and the water is running out. It's pretty cool," he said. "The water goes out and the water goes in. You can literally see the movement of the water, unlike any kind of current."

About half a dozen owners had moved their boats out of slips in the harbor and tied them to moorings offshore to avoid damage from the unusual tides, he said. Tenders shuttling passengers out to the Star Princess cruise ship were timing their trips in and out of the harbor between surges.

Maui Civil Defense Administrator Gen Iinuma said there were no reports of significant impacts on Maui from Tuesday's seismic event.

The county's Emergency Operating Center was activated with key government and industry officials present to coordinate an emergency response, including representatives from Maui Memorial Medical Center and the island's utilities.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center had issued a tsunami watch for Hawaii at 8:05 a.m. Tuesday, not long after a magnitude-8.0 earthquake struck off the coast of the Samoa islands. The watch was downgraded to an advisory at 10:23 a.m.

"We dodged a bullet again," Iinuma said. "The message being that things like this can come at any time."

Mayor Charmaine Tavares said she closely monitored the situation with state and county civil defense officials.

"While we've averted a natural disaster, we're saddened by the loss of life caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Samoa and American Samoa," she said. "They, along with our Filipino community who are struggling with the destruction created by this past weekend's Tropical Storm Ketsana in the northern part of the Philippines, need our support and prayers."

In Honolulu, the American Samoa government office's handful of staff members were having the same trouble as others trying to get through to their homeland. Telephone service to the island was spotty. Some in Hawaii frantically sent text messages and e-mail to family members back home.

The governor of American Samoa, Togiola T.A. Tulafono, who was in Honolulu to discuss economic development and ocean policy, said at a news conference that there appeared to be ''fairly major damage'' to the western and southern sides of the island, but little if any on the northern side. He said several landslides had been reported, including one near the governor's mansion.

Many major roads have been heavily damaged and some were impassable, making it difficult for emergency workers to access small villages that were inundated, he said.

Tulafono said his immediate family was safe but feared that his extended family had suffered one or more fatalities.

''I don't think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster,'' he said.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann said his thoughts were with friends and family in Samoa.

''I know many of us have relatives and good friends in the affected areas," he said. "We pray that they are safe and secure despite what must have been a very frightening time. We hope no one was injured and expect a quick recovery.''

On Maui, even though the earthquake-generated tidal surge was coming from southwest of the island between 1 and 7 p.m., swimmers and boaters on all shores were advised to look out for unusual ocean conditions and currents because of the "wraparound effect."

Kahului Harbor Master Steve Pfister said the two barges that were at the harbor slackened their lines to prepare for a tidal surge, and another barge approaching Kahului was advised to stay offshore and move in circles until it was clear any dangerous conditions had passed.

"It was a good drill," he said. "We get better at it every time."

But when the time for the surge came, nothing happened, Pfister said.

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was a big disappointment, and I want my money back," he joked.

But in Lahaina, Silva said he was enjoying nature's show.

"I'm getting my money's worth today - it's pretty cool," he said. "We were watching a piece of 2-by-4. It goes out the harbor, it goes back in the harbor. It goes out the harbor, it goes back in the harbor."

Hawaiian Airlines announced it intended to operate its next flight from Honolulu to American Samoa on Thursday evening as scheduled, pending confirmation of conditions at Pago Pago International Airport. The airport was closed to commercial flights after the disaster.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor in Los Angeles said the airport's runways were closed because of widespread debris, but one was to be cleared Tuesday afternoon for emergency use.

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