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|| News Item: Posted 2006-11-16

Paradise Shaken: 6.7 Earthquake Catches Islanders off Guard
By George F. Lee, Honolulu Star-Bulletin

I suppose one is never really fully prepared for an emergency or a disaster, but mobilizing to cover one is another kind of challenge.

It was Sunday 7 AM, on what was supposed to be a quiet muggy, rainy day, when the silence was broken. Everything you've heard others say about earthquakes is quite true. What sounded like a freight train rumbling its way through my neighbored was really a 6.7 magnitude temblor.

About five minutes after the first quake, the power went off. The familiar splashing of my aquarium had been silenced. The face of a digital alarm clock dark. Soon after, the shaking of a second near equal magnitude quake rolled through. I wouldn't know it then, but this was not an aftershock.

Unlike other natural disasters such as hurricanes, where you would have some forewarning, there was no warning of this event. Even though this time of year is considered the end of hurricane season, the earthquake and resulting power outage caught many isle residents off guard.

Electrically powered telephones didn't work anymore so I made a quick cell call to my morning shooter to make plans for initial coverage. Early on we knew from radio broadcasts heard from our vehicles that most of the damage was sustained on the Big Island of Hawaii some 200 miles away, while we had an island-wide electrical blackout to deal with.

Feeling the lack of coffee, I gingerly started driving my way toward the office, through light traffic that nevertheless slowed in confusion at intersections. I stopped to photograph police directing traffic at a major intersection, food lines forming at a couple of supermarkets and a closed gas station. After the power went out, gas wouldn't pump, so many people, including one of my shooters, found themselves scrambling for gas or a ride.

Along the way, I got a tip from the office about a high-rise rescue operation: A man and woman were trapped in a 25th-floor elevator, and firefighters were on the scene. It was near the University of Hawaii, along my route, so I headed over. The captain gave me the OK to accompany the rescue team, and we all took off at a run up the stairs. It didn't take that long, but there was some heavy breathing at the top. I watched while the crew tried to get to them, then passed the trapped couple some supplies, after deciding not to break down the doors. Then I headed to the newsroom.

The newsroom was dark except for some basic emergency lighting. There was no air conditioning and no power. Sliding glass doors were opened to let in the muggy tropical air Oddly, our land line phones were working but would go down later that afternoon after backup power was drained. A quick thinking photographer had already unhooked equipment from the outlets, to be sure machines would not be damaged when the power came back up

Battery-operated laptop computers, cell phones and flashlights were the order of the day as our city desk coordinated coverage with our staff here and a Big Island correspondent. A power inverter plugged into an idling pickup truck would serve as our means of recharging batteries. Two or three at time, a round robin of writers and photographers would make their way between the newsroom and the nearby garage to refresh their equipment.

Early on, it was apparent that Honolulu International Airport was a mess due to the influx of passengers trying to leave and the power outage. Our team designated to leave for the Big Island would never leave that day due to flight cancellations. A couple of quick cell calls to members living near the epicenter of the quake would assure some unique coverage of the damage.

With our in-office E-mail, FTP and file servers down, photos were consolidated onto a laptop. A laptop computer with blue tooth telephone connection gave us access to the wire services and
off-shore e-mail accounts, which our freelancers would use to file their photos and staff writers their stories. Coverage included evacuated hospitals, damaged and closed highways, candlelit meals, bewildered visitors to Waikiki and businesses that continued to operate despite it all.

As the day continued editors, writers and photographers appeared for duty, sometimes with their children in tow. Features writers, sports writers and others stepped up to broaden our coverage of the quake and subsequent blackout. Some worked from home offices where they were close to loved ones. Junk food also arrived with coworkers from the few convenience stores that were still open. Trays of veggies originally intended for another event were put out alongside chips, peanut butter, Vienna Sausages, warm sodas and bottled water.

Night was approaching, and the power was still out. We prepared to implement our backup plan: to move key computer work stations needed to build pages and tone photos to a part of town that now had power. Our press, which is located on another part of the island, was also without power and was another problem entirely. The power company's estimate for restoration there was measured in hours. The best thing we could do was continue to gather and edit material and begin to build pages.

Minutes after the order for the move was given, however, normal office lights and power were restored. A cheer went through the newsroom as the lights went on - it sounded like a game-winning homer being hit. Now the real work was to begin, to deliver a Monday morning paper.

Because we had our pages and reporting ready to go and transfer to the now-restored systems, we were able to get that paper out mostly on time for Monday morning.

What were the lessons learned? Keep staffers updated about your back up plan, and remind them to keep their cars gassed up. A generator never hurts: While we made it through this crisis, the Star-Bulletin went forward to obtain one so we'd be more fully powered up next time around. When the unexpected occurs, be prepared to adapt and improvise, as we did this time.

See our coverage @

(George F. Lee is Photography Editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.)

Related Links:
George's member page

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