Soledad O’Brien on Tsunami Warning: ‘You want to be very cognizant of the risks’

By Alex Weprin 

As we mentioned earlier, CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien is currently covering the situation in Japan. In a critique in The Hollywood Reporter, Tim Goodman took issue with a taped segment showing O’Brien’s team picking up their gear and moving to higher ground because a of tsunami… only the tsunami never came.

TVNewser spoke with O’Brien this afternoon. She explained what happened:

We were in the coastal regions, about an hour outside of Sendai. It was really hit tremendously hard by the tsunami.

One of the things that you get consistently, and this happens a lot when you cover tsunamis and earthquakes is that you see tsunami warnings. The local officials will say ‘tsunami warning, everyone get to high ground.’ The first one you sort of ignore because you want to wait and see. Is it a real warning or are officials just being jumpy, trying to get people out of the way?

We were doing live shots, we have tons of gear and ten people on my team, a flyaway, a massive satellite dish set up. You want to be very cognizant of the risks. They start having choppers fly over our heads, saying ‘you have to evacuate, there is a tsunami coming,’ and they told us the height of the wave, which was three meters, and the locals started gathering up their stuff and moving to higher ground.

When we realized this was serious, I heard Sanjay [Gupta] tell Anderson [Cooper] that they were getting the official warnings.

I am listening to Sajnjay and Anderson talking about this official warning and I think ‘now I have got to go.’ Once you do that you have to tell everybody ‘Pack up we gotta go.’

O’Brien and her team, save for the Flyaway operators who chose to stay with the truck, ran about 100 yards, hopped a fence and climbed to the roof of a nearby building. They were eventually given an “all clear,” and told that the tsunami would not be impacting the region they were in.

I have got ten people I am responsible for. Once we made a decision to move, you move and you gather up all the gear and everything you can and get up the hill and out of the way.

Everyone who has covered a tsunami knows, these things travel very fast, once you have spotted a wave, there is a good chance you are not going to survive it, unless you are on high ground.

We got a lot of those warnings, we probably had six while I was there. You ignore some of them, and some of them seem very real and you don’t ignore them because you have people you are responsible for.

It has been interesting, because on one hand you are trying to gauge the risk, whether it is tsunami risk or the risk of aftershocks. You want to bring people the best information, but at the same time you have to be safe, you have to be careful. Navigating that is a strategy in any disaster.