Sirens in tsunami-prone areas now ‘highest priority’

  • A warning siren along Kuakini Highway in Kona. (LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today)
  • A police officer walks down Puuhonua Road in Napoopoo after the 2011 tsunami devastated the area. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today file photo)

KAILUA-KONA — Prioritization of emergency warning siren maintenance, repair and installation across the state has changed.

“I re-established that the highest priority for both installation and maintenance are those places that the sirens present most diminishes the risk of harm from tsunamis,” Hawaii Emergency Management administrator Tom Travis said Wednesday. “That priority applies to both maintenance, fixing sirens and installing new sirens.”

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HI-EMA’s policy for prioritizing the maintenance, repair and installation of new or replacement sirens came under review after a pair of West Hawaii Today stories this month revealed nearly 10 percent — nine of the Big Island’s 92 sirens — were inoperable as of the Oct. 1 test. Among the sites were areas previously impacted by tsunamis, including Napoopoo in South Kona, Punaluu in Ka‘u and Baker Avenue in Hilo.

“The purpose for the siren system is to provide warning for tsunamis, particularly in areas where other means of urgent alerting are unavailable,” Travis said when announcing the change. “Although sirens could be used for many things.”

Previously, priority was based on how many people would hear a siren in a particular area.

For example, he said, a siren on a mountain in a housing development on Oahu might cover up to 15,000 people. That siren would have received higher priority than a siren in an isolated area along the coast.

“Now, it’s based on diminishing risk because of the failure to warn for a tsunami,” Travis said.

Travis agreed that Napoopoo and the Baker Avenue sirens should be among the highest priority for repair. However, he could not provide a timeline of when that would happen.

Napoopoo was hit hard by the March 2011 tsunami. In addition to covering Puuhonua Road in rocks and debris, the waves damaged a number of homes, including one that was ripped from its foundation and sent floating in Kealakekua Bay.

The Baker Avenue siren is situated to provide warning to the Keaukaha coastline area, which was heavily impacted by the April 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 and devastated Hilo.

“I’ve spoken to Mayor Kim,” Travis said. “They (Napoopoo and Baker) are being handled by project management that I am specifically looking at those two to see what we can do to put those back in service as would be consistent with our priorities. I’m not satisfied with the dates when I sat down and reviewed, so I’m looking at ways to improve it.”

He said West Hawaii Today’s coverage of the siren issue focused his attention on the maintenance along with installation. Mayor Harry Kim, who headed Hawaii County Civil Defense for many years, also reached out to the administrator after reading the stories.

“When Mayor Kim called and said he was disturbed by that, I took a look at those things. So now the same priorities are applied to maintenance as are applied to initial installation,” said Travis.

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Kim said he was happy with the response and change in policy.

“I am very pleased with the immediate response from Tom Travis in addressing our problem with the situation on the sirens,” he said. “To think he followed up on this … calling me on a Sunday night shows how conscientious he is.“

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