Freak waves cause damage at US army base at Roi-Namur, shut airports

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A freak wave smashes through doors at the Roi-Namur space tracking facility
A freak wave smashes through doors at the Roi-Namur space tracking facility at the northern end of Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands on Saturday. Image: Screenshot @kathykijiner

By Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal and RNZ Pacific correspondent

Powerful waves, driven by offshore storm surges, hit an important United States military installation in the Marshall Islands on Saturday night, causing damage and resulting in the evacuation of all “non-mission personnel” from the island.

Flooding caused by the waves also hit two airports at Ailinglaplap Atoll, leaving rocks, coral and debris in their wake, keeping those airports closed for weeks.

Other islands reported flooding and moderate damage.

The US Army in a statement yesterdy afternoon that at approximately 9pm on January 20, “a series of weather-induced waves hit Roi-Namur which caused significant flooding in the northern portions of the island”.

A video circulating from Roi-Namur, an island at the northern end of Kwajalein Atoll, shows an approximately one-metre wave hitting the Army’s dining hall, breaking down doors, knocking people down and washing them from outside into the facility.

Roi-Namur houses the US Army’s most sophisticated space-tracking equipment as part of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site.

Screenshots of wave hitting the Roi-Namur dining room
The wave hitting the Roi-Namur dining room. The waves smashed down the dining hall’s doors, knocking people down and flooding the facility. Image: Screenshot RNZ Pacific

A second follow-up wave, caught on video, was higher, possibly as high as one-and-a-half metres, washing through the dining hall.

No deaths reported
No deaths were reported at Roi-Namur, but one person was being treated for injuries at the clinic on Kwajalein Island, the base headquarters.

“One individual sustained injuries to lower extremities and is currently being seen at the Kwaj Clinic,” said Army public affairs officer Mike Brantley. “He is in stable condition.”

The Army said in a statement on Sunday that US Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll and mission partners had established an Emergency Operations Cell to oversee and coordinate all recovery efforts.

“We have accountability of all employees (US and Marshall Islands) and evacuated all non-mission essential personnel to Kwajalein.”

Kwajalein Island is the missile testing range headquarters and is located about 64 km to the south at the other end of the atoll.

“All Roi residents will remain on Kwajalein until basic services can be restored on Roi,” the Army said. “Recovery efforts will be our top priority.”

Roi-Namur
Roi-Namur, which was hit by storm-driven waves Saturday night. Image: Giff Johnson

On Sunday, the Marshall Islands National Weather Service issued a mass text message alert saying: “Northern swells may cause inundation in northern atolls and north-facing shores. Hazardous conditions for swimming and sailing in small crafts due to crashing waves and stronger than usual currents due to swells.”

Damage assessment
An aerial damage assessment conducted by the Army on Sunday morning showed “how water inundation washed over the northwest side of the island (Roi-Namur), flooding at least one-third of it”, the Army said in a brief update Sunday morning.

“There is standing water on both sides of the north end of the runway and the first floors of all but two bachelors’ quarters.”

There was flooding in multiple buildings, including the Tradewinds Theater, the Army store, “and all of the automotive warehouse area”.

Remarkably, the small island of Santo, located 5 km away from Roi-Namur, which houses a Marshallese community of 1000, appeared to be unaffected by flooding, said Kwajalein Member of Parliament David Paul Sunday.

He said the Kwajalein Atoll local government had initiated a survey of all inhabited islands in Kwajalein to determine damage.

Kwajalein is the world’s largest atoll and has Marshallese communities on more than 10 islands.

Wave swells also seriously flooded islands in Ailinglaplap Atoll, tossing debris onto airfields at Woja and Jeh islands.

It likely will take weeks to clear the runways for air service to return. Kili Island, home of the displaced Bikini Islanders, also experienced flooding Saturday-Sunday.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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