Hee Nalu: But Don’t Try to Surf a Tsunami

Narrator: Here in Hawaii we think of our islands
as paradise. [music]

Pleasant weather allows us to enjoy
ocean activities like surfing and paddling year round.

And sometimes huge storm systems
far off in the Pacific create incredible surfing conditions here in Hawaii.

Huge surf can
also cause damage.

The November 2003 storm provides a classic example.

This video will
show you amazing footage of surf damage to Hilo.

And will also showcase the astonishing
surfing waves that were generated.

Most importantly you will learn the difference between storm-generated
surf and deadly tsunami waves.

You may be able to ride big surf, but you must never
try to ride tsunami waves.
[waves crashing]

In late November of 2003,
a large storm developed north east of the Hawaiian Islands.

Huge surf washed ashore.

In Hilo, roads along the Bayfront were closed, shorelines were eroded, and beach parks were

Kevin Kodama: I grew up in Hilo, Waiakea High graduate…

You would always
look out at the break walls if waves were coming over.

I can only remember one or two
times where it got as bad as late November.

We had the unusual circumstance of having
a storm that was to the north east of the Hawaiian Islands with really strong winds
about 40 to 50 knots and even stronger blowing.

For a long time the storm was pretty stationary,
blowing really strong over a large area and just pointing straight at us.

It was actually
a combination of the low pressure system with a very strong high pressure system trailing
behind it.

When you have these two air masses, one with really low pressure and one with
really high pressure and the difference between the two is really large,

that created the
strong winds over a large area that helped produce large swells that came into the Hawaiian

Dr. Walter Dudley: The shape of the islands is such that we don’t often
see these huge waves.

We’re use to trade wind swells.

I have seen really large swells
in the past at Hilo, but twenty years ago.

But it is a really rare event that you have
a storm that sits in that part of the Pacific that can aim waves right at Hilo.

That storm
was producing high winds for us, initially, before we started getting the huge swells.

And whenever we get high winds in the bay the wind surfers are out there.


The storm was also north and east, so you’re going to have the north east directed shore
lines getting hit.

I think part of the issue with the November event was you had a piling
up of the water with the repeated waves and that’s what they call a wave set up.

Like what happens during a hurricane with storm surge: you have a piling up of water,
and when you have additional waves coming in that just worsens the situation.


And even a foot or two can make a difference especially if the big swell is coming in;
the large waves are striking, and at high tide then you add another foot or two to that.

Well then you have water across the highway.


With the November event it was pretty close and pretty messy in terms of the spectrum
of waves that were coming in.

The National Weather Service monitors weather conditions
throughout the Pacific and of course they have satellites and they have buoys.

So they
can see when the right weather conditions are coming together to produce these huge

And with their buoy systems they can monitor those big swells as they move
out from the big storms.

And Civil Defense is immediately alerted when conditions look

“The National Weather Service has issued a high wind warning”

It’s tough
to know exactly when to close any road or area because there are a lot of problems.

You’re going to be diverting traffic and causing congestion and people don’t like
to be inconvenienced especially when nothing happens.

But then if you wait till its too
late you always take the risk of damage or injury to people.

So Civil Defense is in
a rough position there, they can listen to all these advance warnings from the Weather
Service, but exactly when do they close the roads?

Well usually they wait till they
see signs that this big storm is going to cause damage and cover the Bayfront

been real good in the past, as soon as a few rocks get thrown across the road.

But it’s
a tough call they don’t have an easy job.


Stan Lawrence: If it looks dangerous
and stormy and closed out I don’t go out, I wait for nice clean conditions.

For the ocean surface waves what you need is a strong storm or any kind of wind blowing
over the surface of the ocean and the energy from the winds will transferred to the surface
of the ocean

Now if the winds are really strong and if they’re blowing for a long
time and over a large area, that is usually what causes really large surf.

As they approach
shore they begin to change, they begin to feel the bottom as they get into shallower
and shallower water.

With a surfing wave we have a swell moving into shallow water
and it’s feeling the bottom becoming steeper and there is this face.

When it goes deep
water to shallow reef, they just stand straight up and pitch and that’s it you have a nice
breaking wave.

Surfing waves of that size you don’t want to make any mistakes.

People went out and surfed big waves and most of them were pretty experienced and have surfed
Bayfront before because it’s not a place for beginners

And even still it’s not without
risk, I saw people coming out with boards that were snapped in half.

And there were
stones the size of a small car that were pitched up by those big waves.

And under normal
conditions those rocks would stay under the bay where they have been since the last tsunami’ and that just gives you an idea of just how
strong those waves are and how much energy they have.

The fact that some people thought
that these big waves resembled a tsunami probably stems from the fact that they have never really
seen a tsunami

And that they did see damage and huge waves.

Tsunami waves are nothing
at all like these regular wind-generated waves that normally strike the beach.

It’s caused
by an earthquake many thousands of miles away.

Tsunami waves don’t have that face and
they don’t have that motion of the water.

All the water is moving like a flood, and
a flood that is filled with dangerous and deadly stuff and there is nothing you can

One wav to think of a tsunami is to imagine being the size of one of those little
white crabs you see at the beach.

But you got to put yourself down and see regular size
surf coming in, all you would see is the white water at the end of that wave that broke way
off shore.

A tsunami wave is out there in the deep ocean and the difference between
crests could be a hundred miles.

Not a few hundred or thousand feet you might get with
a swell.

And the time between crests can be 15 minutes or more, not the 15 seconds
or more that you might get with regular swells.

So put yourself down as that little crab and
all your see is this white water that’s coming towards shore and it keeps coming and

A huge tsunami might be 6 feet tall at sea but 100 miles long and you have to
think of all that water over all that distance and all that water has got to go somewhere.

So when if comes back in it surges and it can go up blocks, 2 or 3 blocks

How far did
it go up Waianuenue? Pretty far.

Just a big surge of water coming back, so it’s just like
a giant mountain of white water rolling in,

Taking down buildings, trees, cars, people.

And it’s never just one wave, it’s always a series of waves.

Whenever you go to beach
for surfing you know that there is not going to be just one wave there that day, there
is going to be wave after wave.

It’s the same thing with a tsunami: there may be a
dozen waves spread out over 2 or 3 hours.

So nothing at all like the waves you surf
and absolutely nothing you could ever survive if you were out there trying to surf a regular
swell when a tsunami struck.

And bear in mind, after that first tsunami wave washes
in, it’s going to pick up everything in its path, it’s going to pick up rocks and trees
and houses

and it’s going to suck all of that back out to sea and the second wave is
going to have all of that in it.

A tsunami is not a surfable wave because you got a whole
water column in the ocean that is moving up onto shore and it comes with all this debris
in it too.

You’re going to have this series of waves coming in and out and there is not
going to be a nice wave face that surfers like to travel on.

It’s just this wall of
water that is coming in.

So it’s definitely something we don’t ride, we don’t even
think about it.

Don’t try to attempt to ride a tsunami.

You can’t get underneath
it because it goes from the top to the bottom; it’s the entire water column that’s moving
towards shore.

When tsunami waves are coming in the water the water withdraws and a lot
of people have been lured out to see the exposed sea floor that you don’t normally see.

And that’s just deadly, you would never want to do that..

And because a tsunami
can last several hours, you’ll only know when its safe when Civil Defense tells you
its safe.

You wait to hear the all clear siren before you would go into any inundation

The next time we have a tsunami warning, your first thought should be for you and your
family to be in a safe area.

If you’re not in the inundation zone, you are already safe,
but if you are you should know where you need to go to evacuate.

And once you’re outside
the inundation zones, these have been determined by Civil Defense to be safe areas, that’s
as close as you want to be.

We here in Hawaii also create our own tsunamis.

Big earthquakes
scattered around the rim of the Pacific create most tsunamis, but here in Hawaii we’re
capable of generating.

The last one occurred in 1975 and was most devastating to the south
coast of the island just off where the earthquake was centered.

There were two casualties in
Halape in the National Park.

These small-size earthquakes happen periodically and they’ve
happened before and they’re going to happen again.

In situations like that because the
tsunami happens so fast after the earthquake, you really have to pay attention to local

If you have a feeling of a strong earthquake and you’re near the shoreline
just head for the hills, head to higher ground immediately.

Don’t wait for the evacuation
notice to come in because it’s going to be too late.

In Halape 1975, there was less
than 5 minutes from the earthquake to when the huge waves came ashore.

If you feel an
earthquake that’s large enough that you have a hard time standing up, then that’s
big enough to have created a tsunami.

If I’m at the beach and I feel an earthquake
I’m not going to wait around to pick up my body boards and my fins.

I’m gong to
grab my kids and head for the high ground immediately.

There will be more surfable
waves out there; there will be more chances.


But if you try to go out there and
we have a tsunami warning out and the tsunami wave does come in, you’re on your last chance,
that’s it.

If you know what tsunamis are and if you hear of a tsunami you want to go
right to high ground, go right away, grab your loved ones and don’t wait around.

4 thoughts on “Hee Nalu: But Don’t Try to Surf a Tsunami

  1. 2003 november swell, 3 days after my first son was born. I will never forget it! Caught a ride from way out in the middle of the bay all the way to the canoe sheds!! Longest wave of my life! That's me at 5:57, the haole boy with the bodyboard running out to heaven on earth!

  2. Tsunamis are not the result of storms, but by a sudden displacement of a volume of water, usually caused by seismic activity.

  3. The curious thing about this video is how its claim that tsunamis are unsurfable is contradicted by some of the video footage from the Japan tsunami, which show a ruler-straight glassy swell breaking like a normal surfing wave and even peeling with a theoretically rideable shoulder. Of course any surfer attempting to ride such a surfable tsunami will still become a statistic for all the other reasons cited in this video, which are completely confirmed by the very same Japan tsunami videos.

  4. Tsunami waves are a movement of the entire water column, and have currents that extend to the bottom of the sea. They are far more powerful than storm swells, and kill experienced swimmers as easily as anyone else. The water does not work as you expect in a tsunami, and if you are learning this in the wave, it is already too late.

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