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After the all clear, a mistaken tsunami alert for Hawaii

By Paul Drewes
Published On: Feb 05 2013 10:16:00 PM HST

A strong tsunami struck the south pacific this afternoon causing damage there, but also creating confusion here at home.

HONOLULU -

A destructive tsunami struck the south Pacific Ocean Tuesday afternoon causing damage there, but also creating confusion in Hawaii.

Hawaii has seen firsthand the damage from powerful tsunami waves, so when a magnitude-8.0 earthquake struck northeast of Australia, near the Solomon Islands, the Aloha State went on alert and people waited to see if Hawaii would fall under a watch or a warning.

"We have some initial thresholds for issuing a message based on location of earthquake, depth and magnitude of earthquake," said Charles McCreery, the director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

Those initial thresholds didn't raise any alarms.

Waves less than three feet washed over islands close to the epicenter and damaged dozens of homes.

NOAA's deep ocean buoys, which are spread out around the Pacific, weren't picking up any sizable waves so Hawaii was kept out of any tsunami watch or warning.

"After we had some sea level data that said there is no threat to Hawaii, we issued a final all clear message to Hawaii," said McCreery.

Then suddenly Hawaii was included in a tsunami watch, along with other countries around the Pacific.

The reason for the sudden change?  Human error according to McCreery.

"We manually edited Hawaii out of the Pacific-wide message that went out to other countries but one time we simply overlooked editing Hawaii out," said McCreery.

Hawaii's alert status has also quickly changed during previous emergencies.
As scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center learn more about the exact intensity or detailed direction of the earthquake, watches and warning can suddenly be lifted or sent out.

McCreery said changes to the messaging software should fix the false-alert problem in the future, but added what is also needed is even more information.
Additional ocean resources will cost more money though.

"Right now we're dealing with the uncertainties with the federal budget. We'd actually like to add more around deep ocean assessment buoys," said McCreery.

Scientists weren't surprised an earthquake happened in the Santa Cruz islands of the South Pacific, that region had more than 25 quakes with a magnitude of 5 or above in the past week.

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