The moment I heard a local radio disc jockey say, “Please refer to the emergency information section of your Yellow Pages for additional tsunami preparedness information,” I knew the Hawaiian island of Maui was not prepared for a major disaster. And because it wasn’t, neither were my fiancee Stephanie and I. For one, there was no local Yellow Pages in our car, and we were miles from our hotel room.
You know what else became increasingly clear? With Sandy pummeling the Eastern Seaboard and my own experiences confronting a potentially life-threatening situation on the other side of the world, there’s nothing quite like an impending natural disaster to crystalize the degree to which we have grown dependent on technology to access information. Removing that digital stream in a critical moment without warning is like unplugging a ventilator from a critically injured patient.
On our third night in paradise, we got a stark reminder about the risks of standing atop a volcanic rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. On Saturday evening at 5:13pm HST (aka., Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time), a 7.7 earthquake struck Queen Charlotte Island, British Columbia. Minutes later, deep sea sensors picked up the beginnings of a tsunami racing across nearly 2,600 miles of open ocean towards the north and eastern coasts of the Hawaiian islands, as well as the Pacific coastline of North America. That alert would be the last time technology played a part in our disaster response.
Our first indication something was amiss was when we arrived for our dinner reservation three hours after officials had received their initial warning. This despite our spending the previous two hours walking through a busy retail district, less than 100 feet from the beach that in some two and a half hours was due to receive the brunt of the tsunami. Once at the restaurant, our hostess nonchalantly informed us that dinner seatings were cancelled. Meanwhile dozens of blissfully unaware patrons enjoyed their $48 macadamia-crusted mahi-mahi and $18 glasses of Chardonnay. Outside, on the street, tourists ambled along the waterfront.
Not until 9:00pm, four hours post-earthquake, did emergency alert sirens first sound. By this time, word had slowly spread to most people in the area. But prior to the heart-joltingly audible alert, most were taking a laissez-faire, wait-and-see attitude. The sirens changed things, and not for the better. The tiny coastal town of Lahaina descended into panic. Traffic became gridlocked, as the city’s swollen weekend tourist population sought refuge on higher ground.
As we trudged through traffic, we tuned the car radio to an emergency broadcast. Depending on who you trusted – geologists, meteorologists, emergency services officials, and politicians all paraded across the microphone – the wave would range between 20 inches and two meters. This meant the impact would either be, “Aww, what an adorable wave,” or “Fuck me, that’s a floating Volkswagen.”
Both Stephanie and I carried smartphones in our pockets, as did 50 percent of all other people in town, if true to statistics. In our case, these beautiful GPS-enabled, Web-connected micro-computers have two weather apps, not to mention Yelp, OpenTable, Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter, which we had used to research our trip, book reservations, check in to various locations, and post photos about our activities. Even AT&T and Verizon knew our locations, based on cell tower usage. Despite all of this, neither of us got any alerts warning us of the second coming of Poseidon.
Our resort, the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Villas, wasn’t helpful either. The front desk had our cell phone numbers on file as part of our booking, yet when it was time to disseminate critical evacuation information, we received no text message or phone call. Instead, the resort chose to call our in-room phone and, when we didn’t answer, left us a voicemail. Given that we were more than five miles from the resort, carrier pigeon would have had a better chance of reaching us.
Fortunately (and frustratingly), after nearly six ill-informed hours spent waiting out Mother Nature’s wrath a mile up a cold, dark mountain road, the tsunami that did make landfall on Maui was more of the “aww cute” variety, and we finally received the “all clear” to return to the resort.
It was a happy (well, sort of) ending for us. But it could have been much worse. Government has an obligation to figure out a system to protect its people from natural disasters. If it can’t, then what role does it serve?
[Image source, KlikTV]