Tsunami Warnings Sound Around Pacific

The massive earthquake in Chile this morning set off a massive wave of tsunami warnings across the Pacific, including Hawaii. Host Scott Simon speaks with Brian Shiro of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center about evacuation plans for Hawaii and his projections about potential tsunamis.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has issued a caution for parts of the Pacific Basin, including Hawaii. It's the result of an 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Chile this morning and killed dozens of people there. Brian Shiro is a geophysicist with the center right outside of Honolulu.

Mr. Shiro, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. BRIAN SHIRO (Geophysicist, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center): You're welcome.

SIMON: And what's the latest on these tsunami warnings, sir?

Mr. SHIRO: Well, the latest is that the tsunami warning is continuing for the Pacific Ocean. And it's - the tsunami itself has propagated out to several places and we've measured it. And it's ranged in size anywhere from, you know, one foot up to about eight, nine feet in a few cases. So it's a small to moderate tsunami by those standards, but we're taking it seriously since the potential for damage is there.

SIMON: When might the tsunamis hit?

Mr. SHIRO: Well, the tsunami, you know, travels at a very fast speed - about the speed of a jet airplane. But, you know, it's a finite speed, so it does take time to cross the ocean. And if one wants to know the detailed times when it's going to reach where, it's all on our Web site.

For example, it's going to arrive in Hawaii about 11:00, 11:30 a.m. local time. The hope is by 11:00 a.m. to have everyone off the coast in Hawaii, so that just in case a tsunami is damaging, that no one's in harms way.

SIMON: So you're talking about evacuating people in coastal areas. Are there vehicles in place to take them away to higher ground? An evacuation of - is that an evacuation of great size?

Mr. SHIRO: No. It's not like that. The coastal area is a relatively thin band that goes around the coast of the islands. It's about an eighth to a quarter of a mile in thickness, depending on where you are. The maps are all available for people to see in the front of every phone book in Hawaii. They're on the Web as well.

And so the areas to evacuate are small enough that, in fact, you can just walk. And we encourage people not to get in their cars, because it's going to add to problems by clogging the roadways and emergency vehicles may not be able to get where they need to go.

SIMON: Mr. Shiro, can you compare this to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Thailand?

Mr. SHIRO: Well, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was a very different animal. It was from a much larger earthquake to start. Not only in terms of magnitude, but in terms of rupture area. And you know, the rupture area that created the earthquake there was so big that the tsunami it created was a huge tsunami, the largest ever seen.

So this is not like that at all. However, it is the first Pacific-wide tsunami warning we've ever had since 1964. So it's significant from that point of view.

SIMON: Brian Shiro, who's at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center right outside of Honolulu.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. SHIRO: You're welcome.

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