Evacuating Waikiki

In case of tsunami, the best way out might be up.


Illustration: Michael Austin

As kamaaina watched the devastation unleashed across the Pacific by December’s tsunami, one thought leapt to mind: What if?

Take Waikiki. As many as 100,000 people are packed into a low-lying, shoreline area, with limited escape routes. Throw in a rapidly approaching tsunami, and Waikiki looks like a sitting duck. Indeed, a 1994 tsunami alert froze Waikiki into gridlock, as its entire populace tried to drive out of the area simultaneously. The alert turned out to be a false alarm, but a worst-case scenario could bring a destructive tsunami from the Big Island to Waikiki in less than 30 minutes.

Luckily, local government and businesses alike have been worrying about this problem for a while now, and they’ve got a plan: go up.

The official term is vertical evacuation. Given Waikiki’s restricted avenues of escape, the Oahu Civil Defense agency recommends that anyone in an expected inundation zone climb three stories or higher, in a steel-reinforced building at least six stories tall. Virtually all of Waikiki’s hotels and condominiums fit this bill, and should safely withstand all but the most unimaginable wave.

But can it work? Some have doubts about being able to herd large crowds into hotel lobbies and up stairways quickly and safely.

Zabia Dolle, who owns the Enchanted Banyan, recently tried to get from her International Marketplace shop to the third story of one of the nearby hotels within 15 minutes. She encountered narrow, unmarked stairways, locked doors and unhelpful staffs. After being unable to find an accessible stairway leading to the third floor at the Beachcomber, Dolle says, “I went up to the staff and asked what their instructions were in the event of a vertical evacuation. They said, Huh? They had no idea what I was talking about.”

John Cummings, the Oahu Civil Defense spokesperson, says that high-rise hotels and condominiums in Waikiki are under no legal obligation to provide shelter to the general public. “Because they are private properties, Civil Defense will not broadcast hotels as shelter locations,” he says. “But if someone is running off the beach, I’m sure the hotel is not going to turn them away.”

Oahu Civil Defense is working to spread the gospel of vertical evacuation in the hotel industry. On April 1, the agency will be coordinating with police and fire departments, as well as the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Visitor Industry Security Association, for the third annual tsunami preparedness drill. The drill, held on the anniversary of the 1946 tsunami that claimed 159 lives in Hawaii, tests lines of communications and ensures that all plans are current and working smoothly.

Cummings admits that no evacuation plan is perfect, but points out that, for most of Waikiki, the predicted zone of inundation reaches only to Kalakaua Avenue. “Most zones in the island you can walk out of in five minutes,” he says.

Still, the police and fire departments are prepared for the worst. “In spite of our best efforts to warn the public, people are going to ignore us,” says Honolulu deputy fire chief John Clark. “You’re going to have surfers out waiting for that 30-foot wave.”

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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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