Waiting out the tsunami on the 17th floor

Former Chronicle staffer Preston Sparks describes Pacific tsunami

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Former Chronicle staffer Preston Sparks watches the waves on the beach in Hawaii.
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Editor's note: Preston Sparks, a former Chronicle reporter and editor, offers this first-person account of the Pacific tsunami from Hawaii.

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Ocean looks different off Waikiki Beach during tsunami  Special
Special
Ocean looks different off Waikiki Beach during tsunami

It's now been just more than a week since I heard two words you never want to have uttered on or near the beach - and certainly not on your anniversary trip while in Hawaii.

"Tsunami Warning."

On March 10, that's exactly what I heard from our waitress as we were dining at a restaurant on Waikiki Beach.

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WAIKIKI, Hawaii -- It's a moment in time I'll never forget....the words..."By the way, we're going to have to close early," the waitress uttered to us under her breath so few could hear. "There's been a tsunami warning."

"A what?" asked, hoping I had misheard amid the background of music and calm ocean waves.  Surely she was kidding, I thought.

"A tsunami warning," she repeated to me and my wife, adding that Japan had just been struck with a massive earthquake - at that time believed to be an 8.9 - and a tsunami had destroyed the coast there and was headed our way, set to hit at 3 a.m. Hawaii time.

I quickly grabbed my phone to check the news feed to find out more.

The top story read: "Tsunami warning issued for Hawaii, all islands could sustain damage."

I read the headline to my wife and said, "I'm glad we're on the 17th floor."  

The waitress quickly replied, "Oh, that won't matter in a tsunami."

"What can we do then?" I asked.

"Head for the hills," she said stone-faced. 

She then said we should probably check with the front desk at our hotel (a short walk down the beach) for instructions.

On our way to our hotel, having learned from news reports that it was just a few hours to "impact" time of when the first wave was to hit, it was odd to see that there were still some people settling in on the beach.  There was a calm breeze with the night just as calm. 

We entered our hotel and I asked the desk manager what we should do.  He asked what floor we were on.  I told him it was the 17th. 

He said, "We're evacuating just the bottom five floors, so you should just go to your room and you'll be OK.  Adding, however, "We might have to shut the power off and we ask that you fill your bathtub with water should the water be cut off."

We did as we were instructed, but all the while had a pressing feeling that we should get to our rental car and evacuate the area ..."head for the hills" as our waitress had advised.  The closest "hill" was Diamond Head Crater mountain - in view but a slow drive with cars filling the roadways. 

Just minutes after getting into our room and filling our bathtub with water (in the event of fire, according to the emergency preparedness directive on the back of the hotel door), we heard on the local TV news that long queues had formed at Waikiki gas stations and traffic had bogged many major roads. Streets lining oceanside, ours included, were being sealed off and the beach streets and walking paths were being cleared of pedestrians by civil authorities. 

We were going to be on the 17th floor, in wait, afterall. 

Sirens blared outside, An official  broadcasted over a PA system atop a police cruiser, telling anyone in earshot that a tsunami was imminent and to evacuate the area immediately or move to higher floors of their hotels. 

I had started receiving calls and texts from our family and friends asking if we were OK.  The phone was about to go dead, so I quickly responded that we were (OK) but that we were holed up in our 17th floor room in wait and had been assured by our hotel that we were safe that high up and in a very well-made hotel.  I learned how stoic and calm my wife was in an emergency, although inwardly we were scared.  Many others were stuck and scared alongside us and in wait just the same.  A couple on the next balcony, who had earlier stated a friend - a local - was coming to pick them up, was overheard relaying to a loved one on the phone that their friend could not get in on the roads to get them. 

Through a speaker in our room, our hotel then made an announcement that they were evacuating the bottom eight floors (a noticeable and unnerving difference from the earlier five floors).  It was soon after that when the power shut off.  I frantically tried to find a flashlight.

Just prior to the power blacking out, we'd last heard reporters stating authorities were still saying they had no idea how big the waves might be or how many there could be, urging people to evacuate or to seek higher ground if unable to evacuate coastlines.  There also was an ominous time-ticker on the tv screen counting down the time to "impact." 

Not knowing what might be headed our way and that it carried a time-ticker was enough to create plenty of tension.  No water, no power, and a dying cell phone didn't help.  We decided to leave the sliding glass door fully open in case of flying glass, shutters included, and discussed that, at the appointed time, we would take to the close stairwell and hunker down there if things got bad, believing it to be the structurally safest part of a building

My wife and I didn't know what to expect.  Although we felt we were high enough and were assured of our hotel’s sound structural integrity, what if debris struck the foundation of the hotel?  What if there was massive flooding that at best had us marooned for days in our hotel room? 

We watched the water from just inside our balcony, believing a fierce bob to the distant boat lights of boats ordered away from their harbors our only cue.  The last text that got through my phone was my brother writing how he was watching TV news of a live cam of our beach and some increased wave action near Diamond Head.

Shortly after 3 a.m. Hawaii time (8 a.m. in Augusta) - impact time - we watched as the ocean waters receded  - a typical precursor to a tsunami. Within a minute or so, the waves began to rise, surpassing a break wall and consuming much of the beach.  But the waves proved to be only a few feet high and never reached our hotel, which was about 100 yards from the ocean.

We watched and waited for the next few hours and nothing more eventful than that happened, thankfully.   The relief we felt was immense, and by 5:30 a.m. power was restored and reports were that Waikiki was in the clear.

 The next day, the ocean at beachside looked a little different.  The water level had dropped, exposing the ocean floor in parts.  It looked mottled in places from high up where the day before water covered places now partially exposed.  

The catamaran tours that were fixed in the ocean scenery the last three days were not operating that day, and surfboard rental booths were mostly closed.  Harbor boats remained in the distance. Even so, some still braved the ocean - which had become littered with rocks and oceanbed debris.  

We later read in the Honolulu Star Advertiser that an elderly man had ventured into the waters off Waikiki Beach Friday after the tsunami and had been washed out into the ocean, nearly drowning and having to be revived and placed on a ventilator.

We also read the local news of 11 other swimmers knocked down or towed under at our beach and of the major damage in Northern Oahu, in Maui and on the Big Island of Hawaii, principally Kona where there was much property damage.  Some businesses were flooded, and there was at least one report of a home being washed out to sea. 

Initially, we had plans to take a lava tour of the "Big Island" Friday.  It was cancelled and rescheduled for Saturday. It was there, on the Big Island, that we learned of another odd twist of Mother Nature. 

We had expected to see lava flowing - something that's been occurring since the early '80s - but just before the tsunami the lava had mysteriously gone into what was termed a "pause."  Days prior, lava was erupting in massive bursts from a collapsed crater. And the same night the tsunami warning was issued, there was a 4.5 earthquake on the "Big Island" on the flank of the Kilauea volcano.  

"Something's going on," our tour guide said, raising his eyebrows. "This is unusual."

Despite it all, we had a great time in the Hawaiian Islands. Before the tsunami warning, we had plenty of beach time, shopping, good eats, Hawaiian music and performances, brilliant rainbows and stunning scenery and had taken a catamaran out in the ocean.  We also visited Pearl Harbor and took a submarine tour of the ocean 120 feet down.

 Hawaii is a place we plan to visit again - and soon - only next time we hope without hearing those two ominous words: "Tsunami Warning."


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