On March 10, at 11:36 p.m., a tsunami generated by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan struck Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, consists of three low–lying islands 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. The tsunami overwashed Spit Island completely, and it covered about 60 percent of Eastern Island and 20 percent of Sand Island.

Here are excerpts from a recent Refuge Update interview with then–acting refuge manager John Klavitter about what he and his colleagues experienced that night and in the following days.

Q. How many people were on Midway Atoll as the tsunami approached?

A. 81 people, all on Sand Island. Six refuge staff, four volunteers, 53 refuge contractors, one researcher, 17 visitors.

Q. What preparations were you and other refuge staff able to make in the four hours’ notice that you had before the tsunami arrived? For instance, what kind of infrastructure and equipment were secured?

A. We switched to a backup generator on higher ground and moved the following vehicles to the center of Sand Island near the 40–foot highpoint at Midway: a 31–foot boat; 5,000— and 6,000-gallon jet fuel trucks; a trailer holding 2,000 gallons of drinking water; airfield fire and rescue truck; a front–end loader; a backhoe loader; an excavator; a bulldozer; an airport sweeper truck; a vacuum truck; and several smaller vehicles.

Q. I understand everyone was evacuated to the third floor of the Charlie Barracks living quarters. Where on the third floor were staff, contractors and visitors during the tsunami? In their own rooms, in hallways?

A. Most of the third floor of Charlie Hotel is occupied by permanent Midway contractors. All of them opened their doors for other residents and visitors to rest, watch news, and receive information via e–mail and the Internet. So, it was a mix of people resting and waiting in rooms and the hallway. The airport manager lives on the third floor, and his room became the command and communication center. I spent most of my time there with a project manager and airport manager.

photo of green sea turtles
Five live green sea turtles were rescued from land or the wetlands in the middle of Eastern Island.
Credit: USFWS

Q. How long after the tsunami passed did people stay on the third floor of the hotel?

A. We observed four main waves during the tsunami event. The first was at 11:36 p.m.; the largest, at 4.93 feet, was at 11:48 p.m.; and the last large one was at 12:48 a.m. There were many smaller waves and extreme low tides between and after the main waves. We stayed on the third floor of Charlie for two hours after the last major wave. So, we went back to our individual living areas about 2:45 a.m. with the understanding that no one was to leave the center of the Sand Island housing area as a precaution. The exceptions were the airport manager and two firefighters to inspect the airfield.

Q. Did water envelop the first floor of the hotel?

A. No, the closest tsunami water was about 100 meters away.

Q. What was it like in Charlie Hotel?

A. To be honest, we were very isolated from the event; most of the windows were closed. It was a clear night without any wind and very quiet outside. When the waves started to roll in, you could hear a faint rumbling of the ocean 200 to 400 meters away. The main way we observed the tsunami was from the Internet. In cooperation with NOAA, we have a tide gauge in the harbor at Midway that provides data in real time via satellite link. We watched the tide gauge change, and that’s how we knew we had some significant waves reaching Midway and when it was safe to return to our own quarters. This is in addition to advisories from the NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

Q. Did you ever feel as if your life was in danger?

A. No, I and everyone else felt calm. We were prepared with communications, water, food, etc. well before the first wave. Also, the Tsunami Warning Center had predicted waves of a magnitude less than or equal to those that struck Midway in 1952 (4.3 feet), which flooded the island but caused no loss of life. Everyone was calm. People slept, played games, watched the news from Japan.

Q. What damage did the tsunami inflict on the refuge?

A. Two boat piers were moderately damaged. The airfield had debris (coral rubble, sand, trash, vegetation) on about 20 percent of it, which caused its closure for about a day. All the debris was cleared with heavy equipment within about 12 hours. There was some damage to the seawalls. This will be the most costly item to deal with. A small storage shed and outhouse on Eastern Island were damaged, along with short–tailed albatross decoys and the cable for our remote camera. We are currently working on a dollar figure for the damage.

photo of Laysan albatross chick
This Laysan albatross chick survived the tsunami. More photographs of the refuge in the tsunami's aftermath are available at the Pacific Region’s Flickr Web site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwspacific.
Credit: USFWS

Q. What is the refuge doing to recover from the damage?

A. The first item was to remove the debris from the runway. Next, we assessed all three islands for infrastructure damage and wildlife impacts. Many albatross chicks, subadults and adults were trapped in vegetation and debris fields that had washed onto parts of Sand Island, but mostly Eastern. We spent much time rescuing albatross from land. Bonin petrels were also buried alive in their burrows part of Sand Island. We dug birds out. We used boats to rescue water–logged albatross from the lagoon. The birds were unable to fly because their feathers lost their waterproofing ability after being tumbled in the waves. Five live green sea turtles were rescued from land or the wetlands in the middle of Eastern Island. All three freshwater wetlands on Eastern Island were inundated with saltwater. One of them had more than 600 dead albatross chicks, 60 dead adult/subadults and 1,000 pounds of plastic and vegetation that needed to be removed by hand. It was important to clean the wetlands immediately so the bacteria that produce botulism, which affects endangered Laysan ducks, would be controlled. Staff, volunteers, contractors and even visitors helped with the clean–up.

Q. What is the latest information (as of early April) on the damage to wildlife and habitat?

A. More than 110,000 Laysan and black–footed albatross chicks—about 22 percent of this year's albatross production—and at least 2,000 adults/subadults were lost. Wisdom, the 60-year–old albatross that recently hatched a chick and whose fate was uncertain for days, survived the tsunami. The first confirmed short–tailed albatross chick in modern history to hatch outside of Japan also survived. Thousands of dead reef fish washed up on Eastern. Hundreds or potentially several thousand adult/subadult bonin petrels were buried alive and died. We are unsure of the effects on Laysan ducks at this time. NOAA will be conducting an assessment on Hawaiian monk seals in the near future.

Q. When you and your colleagues compare what you went through to what parts of Japan are going through, what thoughts to do you have?

A. We have followed the events in Japan very closely. We are all devastated by what happened in Japan. What happened at Midway was sad, unfortunate and tragic, but it does not even begin to compare to the losses experienced in Japan. We all think daily of those suffering in Japan and send as much positive energy their way as possible.

Q. Can you put into context what you went through compared to what they are enduring?

A. No, their experience is beyond comprehension.