THE reports in your newspaper concerning the
warnings of a possible tsunami to a public that showed little concern may
possibly be due to the fact that when Fiji experienced an earthquake on September 14, 1953 (more than 50 years ago) a large portion of the public were quite young and some had not yet been born.
A short description of what happened on that day might explain what could happen again.
THE earthquake which struck Suva on September 14, 1953 occurred under the sea and the epicentre, just off the entrance to Namuka Harbour, was on a line drawn from the peak of Rama (commonly known as Joske's Thumb) right through the centre of Namuka reef passage.
The first indication on that day to those close to Suva Harbour was a rapid fall in the water level that exposed the reefs and tidal flats at the north end of the harbour.
Yachts at moorings were left high and dry and those with deep keels lay over on their sides. Fish were left flopping around on the exposed seabed but before anyone could run out to collect them, the sea level rose dramatically as waves poured back into the harbour.
The waves battered ships in the vicinity of the repair berth by the slipway and the MV Yanawai, which had just finished a survey, was badly damaged and eventually had to undergo another refit.
The current started to run up and down Walu Bay creek due to the influence of rapid level changes in the harbour, and smallest vessels such as cutters, which used to moor at the mouth of the creek with an anchor forward and the stern made fast to the shore, first hit the seabed and then were battered by the incoming waves.
Some were sunk but all suffered collision damage by being thrown against each other. At the other end of the wharf the office of the Harbour Master was damaged in the process.
This occurred due to the reclamation on which the sturdy concrete office was being built, being washed away by a series of huge waves.
Those trapped in the office on the top floor made their escape by sliding down the rear wall.
Luckiest of all was the tanker Stanvac Sumatra which had just finished discharging cargo and had disconnected the hose.
The probability of a dangerous fire was thus avoided which was just as well as the fire station, which was then located next to the Regal Cinema, had just been inundated by a huge wave and neither the men nor the equipment were in a fit condition to answer an emergency call.
The captain and crew of the cutter Adi Tirisia had a terrifying experience when nearing Suva at the end of a voyage and must have been close to the epicentre at the time of the quake.
Following the sound of a heavy explosion they saw a huge column of water projected upwards from the surface of the sea, followed by rocks of various sizes and an old wreck that must have been lying on the seabed.
In the harbour, which they had always associated with calm water, there were current-induced waves in the entrance and then waves across the harbour which had the cutter surfing along for a time.
Bad as the waves were, it was acknowledged that they would have been much higher but for the barrier reef around the harbour.
Even so the reef itself was cracked and fissured and presented a completely new appearance with the number of large rocks that had been deposited on top of it, many of which can still be seen today.
There was no ship available with an echo sounder capable of probing the depths outside Namuka Harbour. However, within a few weeks the Tongan tug Hifofua visited Suva.
She had been newly built in the Netherlands and was fitted with a deep echo-sounder and the captain readily agreed to take soundings.
The recorder trace, which was presented to the Harbour Master Suva, fixed the position and showed a definite crack in the seabed.
It was not only at sea where damage was sustained.
The waves crossed the harbour, deposited debris all along the waterfront road and did considerable damage to its surface.
Albert Park was flooded. The Cable and Wireless Office on the waterfront, which contained batteries for emergency power such as those carried in a submarine, faced near disaster when the seawater, washing over the batteries and reacting to the acid, formed a choking gas which filled the room.
Fortunately, the workers were able to escape by evacuating the building.
Heavy waves hit the coast from Lami to Naitonitoni and the approaches to Lami Bridge were washed away, but quickly repaired by the PWD in the record time of one hour.
Lesser waves were experienced along the Coral Coast.
As tsunami waves increase in speed as they travel along the surface, the waves that struck Nakasaleka in Kadavu did a great deal of damage.
Altogether eight lives were lost and many residents stated they would have gladly endured a hurricane any day rather than suffer another earthquake.