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Damaging Quake Shakes Up Hawaii

Times Staff Writers

A powerful earthquake shook the Big Island of Hawaii on Sunday, prompting evacuations of thousands of tourists from damaged resort hotels and residents from crumpled homes, knocking out power as far away as Honolulu and throwing the island into a state of emergency.

The magnitude-6.6 quake -- nearly as strong as the 1994 Northridge temblor -- struck at 7:07 a.m. about 11 miles offshore from Kailua-Kona, a resort town on Hawaii’s popular and sunny Kona Coast. No fatalities were reported, and most of the injuries were believed to be minor.

“My whole house collapsed,” said Dennis Martin of Waimea. “The back end sank and the porch went through the roof.”

Martin, an associate pastor, was at church at the time, but his wife and two daughters were caught in bed. “They were really shaken up, but no one was hurt,” he said. “It was an absolute miracle.”

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About 2,000 tourists were evacuated from two hotels, said Harry Kim, mayor of the island of Hawaii. At one point during the day, about 1,000 locals and vacationers swelled the four shelters that the county had set up, but by evening only 100 remained. The rest, mostly tourists, had returned to their hotels, where they were housed in wings that had not sustained damage, Kim said.

Kim said there had been damage to “numerous homes” and that 15 schools had been damaged and would remain closed today.

Tad Nottage, 51, was sitting on his surfboard, waiting for a wave off Kailua-Kona, near the epicenter.

“All of a sudden it felt like an explosion in the airwaves, it was a pressure like a boom,” he said. “My first thought was that maybe Honolulu had been bombed, with all that North Korea stuff going on.”

He looked toward the shore and “there was this wood-framed building that looked like it was doing the hula.” Then he realized it was a quake and paddled ashore.

Vanessa Garcia said she and her sons, aged 12 and 15, found the experience terrifying. They rode out the quake on the second floor of a house in Kohala.

“It started shaking and I called my children and they started to cry,” Garcia said. “I started to say my prayers and it was still shaking. It was very, very long and violent.... I lived in California for most of my life and never had anything like this.”

The quake disrupted power 100 miles away on the island of Oahu, caused a major rockslide that closed the road to Hana on the island of Maui, and snarled airports throughout the island chain. All incoming airliners found an airport to land.

But the quake knocked out power at Honolulu International Airport, “substantially impacting” operations, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. A backup generator immediately kicked in to power air traffic control, instrument landing and radar systems. But screening machines, ticket counters, lights and jet bridges were mostly inoperable throughout the day, resulting in flight cancellations and delays.

By nightfall, most of the power had been restored and outbound flights were taking off again.

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle declared a state of emergency, allowing her to mobilize the state’s National Guard and seek federal assistance. A team of experts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was scheduled to fly from Oakland to Hawaii today to lend technical aid.

The quake was the biggest to hit the island chain in more than 30 years. In 1975, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake rocked the Big Island, generating a moderate-sized tsunami that killed two people.

No tsunami resulted from this quake, which was different in that it made the seafloor move side-to-side, rather than up and down. Giant waves are generally caused by the upward thrust of a huge quake, such as the one in the Indian Ocean two years ago that claimed more than 200,000 lives.

Seismologists recorded about 40 additional earthquakes and aftershocks on the Big Island by early afternoon, including a magnitude-5.8 event that occurred 7 minutes after the initial temblor.

Like most Hawaiian earthquakes, the temblor was related to the volcanic activity that built the Hawaiian Islands as the top of undersea mountains sprouting from the deep ocean. This quake happened when accumulated weight of layers of cooled magma became too heavy for the earth’s crust to hold -- so it simply gave way.

“Volcanoes grow over time,” said Harley Benz of the U.S. Geological Survey. “They become so massive just the sheer weight of the volcano, of the solid rock that’s been built up over thousands and millions of years, alone will cause earthquakes.”

The quake blocked roads with rockslides, opened sinkholes on several roads and damaged bridges, said Rod Haraga, state transportation director. Some bridges were closed until engineers could evaluate the damage, and authorities took to the airwaves to urge drivers to stay off the roads.

Further crippling the state was widespread disruption of power and telephone service, said David Curtis of the Hawaii State Civil Defense agency. Without communication, initial assessments of the damage on the Big Island were extremely difficult for state and federal emergency workers -- most of whom are located on neighboring Oahu.

“It’s difficult to tell right off the top,” said Bob Fenton, who is in charge of FEMA’s response to the quake. “The icing may be OK, but you can’t tell what’s in the cake.”

A crew of about 20 FEMA workers -- one of whom learned about the earthquake when it shook him out of his bed in Honolulu -- set off in government planes for the Big Island on Sunday afternoon. FEMA put medical and urban search-and-rescue teams on alert on the West Coast.

“Right now, both the state and FEMA are trying to determine what is needed,” said FEMA spokeswoman Kim Walz. “It’s still an assessment stage.”

U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) said he was “extremely grateful that no fatalities have been reported at this time.” He planned to fly over the Kona Coast with other officials today to assess the damage.

The Kona Community Hospital lost power and was left a “mess” of fallen ceiling tiles, overturned carts and equipment shaken from the walls. Fifteen acute patients were flown to a hospital in Hilo, on the other side of the island, and 30 long-term but stable patients were taken to an emergency shelter operated by the American Red Cross.

“It appears that most of the damage is to hospitals, larger buildings and hotels,” said Barney Sheffield, disaster coordinator for the Red Cross’ Kona office, which opened four shelters. “It looks like a number of houses have been knocked off their foundations.”

Some commercial buildings suffered damage, including a Wal-Mart and a Safeway supermarket.

Many hotels were not fully booked in this slow season, but structural damage could present a problem as hotels and other outfits catering to tourists prepare for next week’s Ironman Triathlon, one of the island’s biggest events.

The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai ordered guests to leave their rooms temporarily until officials could determine that the 243-room hotel was safe.

“We didn’t sustain any structural damage,” said Eric Kwan, a spokesman for the hotel. “We are back to normal services and we are resuming normal operation.”

At least four houses were shaken from their foundations in Waimea and several others in nearby Paauilo, said Martin while packing up his belongings to leave his damaged home. “The fire department said it’s not safe to stay and [to] get everything we can out of the house now and leave.”

Many homes were left structurally intact, but littered with broken dishes and other toppled household items.

“My house will take a while to clean up,” said Ron Laub, a lighting consultant. “Let’s put it this way: If we invite anybody over to have wine, they have to bring their own glass.”

sharon.bernstein@latimes.com

john.mitchell@latimes.com

ken.weiss@ latimes.com

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Times staff writers Stephanie Chavez, Scott Glover, Maura Reynolds, Stuart Silverstein and Tracy Weber contributed to this report.


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