The wreckage

I’ll start with the good news. The entire crew has been successfully evacuated from Tern Island and have made it back to the main islands. From what we hear, it was a challenging on-load at the island, with one trip between the ship and the Tern dock taking nearly an hour in the small boats.  It was also a particularly rocky boat ride back to Honolulu, with the boat pounding into 30+ knot winds and 12-14′ swells. If you’ve ever been on the Kahana before, you know that this can be a miserable experience. The Kahana’s a freighter; it’s not particularly “optimized” for passengers. But they all survived and most of them were home with their friends and family in time for Christmas.

The Tern Crew, moments after they stepped off the Kahana. From left to right: Olivia Bailey (med-evaced earlier this fall), Morgan Gilmour, Abram Fleishman, Mike Johns, Larry Chlebeck, and Chad Bell.

The Tern Crew, moments after they stepped off the Kahana. From left to right: Olivia Bailey (med-evaced earlier this fall), Morgan Gilmour, Abram Fleishman, Mike Johns, Larry Chlebeck, and Chad Bell (photo by USFWS)

Now the bad news. With the exception of one building and some water tanks, the entire field station (barracks, boathouses, and storage sheds) is destroyed beyond repair. Of course this is a huge, huge loss for the program, but do take note that all of these lost structures were already in such poor condition before the storm that they were beyond repair. And they had been in that condition for many years, but that just the way things are for Tern. We’ve been in “eek out another year” mode for many, many years out there. We’re not sure why the condition of our facilities out there never seemed to merit the attention it absolutely screamed for, but that’s the way it was.

Unfortunately, when high winds strike buildings that are decades past the end of their reasonable life, the end result is not pretty. To be sure, the microburst that struck Tern Island was a rare weather event. It’s entirely possible that even the sturdiest, best-maintained buildings would have been demolished by the storm, but what you’ll see in the following photographs and journal accounts is what happens when a severe storm meets an already dilapidated facility. The lives of staff and volunteers were seriously threatened. Hundreds of seabirds were killed by flying wall panels, roofs, and other debris that hurtled through the air at high speeds. What remains of the destroyed buildings will likely continue to entrap and harm wildlife. It’s grim, folks. Really, really grim.

A Laysan albatross crushed by a wall panel and bookshelf that were blown from the building. (Photo by Abram Fleishman)

A Laysan albatross crushed by a wall panel and bookshelf that were blown from the building. (Photo by Abram Fleishman)

Through it all, the crew of FWS volunteers (Abram Fleishman, Morgan Gilmour, Larry Chlebeck, and Mike Johns) and their leader, Tern Co-Manager Chad Bell remained upbeat and worked harder than ever. After fleeing to the North wing of the barracks, a moderately safer place to wait out the storm, they began assembling emergency supplies, repairing broken water pipes, restoring downed communications antennas, and closing off the severely damaged section of the barracks from the less compromised portion of the building. During all this, a severe thunderstorm raged on outside, dropping temperatures, dumping buckets of rain, sending bolts of lightning to the ground, and being all-around quite scary. Once the storm passed several days later, the crew was finally able to truly assess the damage to the facilities, the wildlife, and the habitat. They worked dawn until dusk cleaning up debris, salvaging equipment and data, and moving gear into warehouse, the only stable building left on the island (before and after the storm).

But enough of what I have to say about it. First read Mike John’s excellent journal of the storm. Mike was up early the morning of the storm taking photos of the lightning and checking email. And thank goodness he was. As you’ll see in the photo album, if Mike had been in his bedroom, he probably would not be with us today. Mike’s journal of the storm provides vivid detail of what it was like to be in the barracks during the storm and the hours after. Next, take a look at Abram Fleishman’s photo album of the damage to further grasp what it must have been like to have been there through it all.

Thanks again to this crew for your amazing, tireless work on behalf of the wildlife and the program on Tern. Additional thanks to Abram and Mike for sharing their photos and writings with me.

Click here to be taken to Mike’s blog entry about the storm.

And here are some of Abram’s photos (with captions by Meg) from the storm and aftermath. Click on any photo to scroll through the entire gallery. (Warning: The album does contain a few shots of dead and injured seabirds. If you are uncomfortable with this, proceed with caution.)

10 responses to “The wreckage

  1. What a terrible disaster! What an incredibly hard-working crew of Ternites, to carry on and take care of things as best they could before being evacuated; thank you!

  2. I’m so glad everyone is alright. That is terrifying. I’ve spent some time on Tern and cannot imagine what you all experienced. I know your hearts broke for the birds. Mine has too.

  3. With any good fortune, this horrific event could become a blessing. If the valuable done on Tern is given its due – and hopefully with a sympathetic public wanting to help, funding might be gained to go clean up the rest of the debris and have a new facility built in its place.

    A lot to hope for, I know, but get your story out there! I can imagine many people joining together with donations – and perhaps a corporation or two as well – to get this done!

  4. My heart breaks for the wildlife, so glad the crew was okay though I know must have been quite an experience for them. Thank you all for your efforts and the work ahead in cleaning all this up. Andi (Tern Volunteer 1999/2000 ish)

  5. As one who was stationed at FFS back in 73, its a sad time to see all that was destroyed.

  6. I weathered a few storms on Tern back in 1961 as I served out my year there in the Coast Guard. Several times we had a runnway full of coral and other debris swept ashore by numerous storms during 1961.
    We had a pond with fish, Joe the turtle, plenty of baby turtles that liked to be hand fed with baloney. We then put a octopus in one day, bolcked off in his own section only to find the next day that it had eaten everything with the exception of Joe the turtle who was somewhat big in size. Needless to say we released the octopus back into the sea.
    We also had a pet baby seal who drove us all nuts with his constant need for attention. He would follow us around in the barracks and lay on the couch outside the mess hall. We finally had to let him go also because he just got to be such a pest.
    We actually went outside the breakers to the north of Tern and fished often. One of the guys caught a large shark a good 12′ long which we killed back on the island with a few bullets.
    One problem with fishing outside the reef to the north was by the time we got a fish to the boat about the only thing left was the head; so we did most fishing within the shoals area itself.
    We made a ten foot box kite that could pull us down the runnway while sitting on a battery cart. There were no breaks and stopping was a real problem with one usually in the water.
    We used a parachute and a rubber raft that would blow us across the reefs on the south side of the island at great speed.
    We had an Hawaian mess cook that was always cooking us fresh fish that still makes my mouth water. Lobster was also on the menu all the time.
    During my stay there were 15 Coast Guard and a few PMR folks that kept rotating on and off. We also had two dogs that tended to harass the seals but left the turtles and birds basically alone. I also recall in the winter on the north side where our diving board was there were very large rays jumping out of the water as they swam around the island in a clockwise direction.
    I had arrived in November 1960 and left in Novermber 1961. Looking back I can honestly say I enjoyed life on Tern because it was pristine in my eyes without all the bird mess I hear about now. There was nothing but fresh sea air when I was there and the bird population wasn’t as it is today. There were lots of turtles and seals back then but that may have changed by now.
    For your library I would suggest a copy of A. Binion Amerson’s book Coral Carrier a history of French Frigate Shoals.

    • Hi William,
      Thanks for being in touch and sharing your stories. My how things have changed, huh? The history of that place fascinates me and yes, I do have my copy of Binion Amerson’s wonderful book.

      You are correct, now that the island has been returned to Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge after military use, those seabirds have populated the island in the tens of thousands and yup, they are certainly smelly and loud. It takes a special type to live there, let alone enjoy it, but we seem to find enough crazy people out there to work for us, myself included! ;) Did you know that Whale and Skate islands, which formerly supported the majority of nesting seabirds in French Frigate Shoals, are now completely underwater? The final permanent submersion happened sometime in the mid-90′s. So in a way, I suppose the timing of the transfer of Tern Island back to Fish and Wildlife Service couldn’t have been better.

      Our practices with respect to fishing and monk seals have also changed drastically. Fishing has been banned within the atoll and for a 50 mile radius outside of it and now that there are little more than a thousand Hawaiian monk seals left in the whole world, we try to give them plenty of space! If I could sum up our current approach to monk seals on Tern Island it would be: make every attempt to convince monk seals that there are no people at all on the island! This can be a challenge sometimes because, as you know, Tern is tiny! But because things are so dreadfully dire for the monk seals, we do whatever we can.

      Anyway, thanks again for visiting the site and sharing your stories. I think I am pretty inspired by your 10-foot box kite idea, though with the possibility of air evacuations off the table, I’m not sure if it’s a such a good idea…bummer!


  7. What a shock. So glad that none of the staff and volunteers were hurt during that collapse, yet so tragic that so many birds were killed and injured. Having worked on the upgrades to the facilities in 2006 I know how much investment in solar systems, batteries, and other essential equipment must have been lost. I am so grateful to the work of the volunteers in cleaning up what they could. I know there was evidence of crumbling walls and leaking roofs for many years that had endured the harsh and salty environment.

    I did not see photos of the new generator shed that Brad Weatherby and others built in 2006 or the warehouse so perhaps there is hope to salvage some of that facility. I can only guess if this was a freak weather event or neglected maintenance, or likely a combination of both. I certainly never saw any storms in the 1 and 1/2 years I spent on Tern from 2000 to 2006 that would ever have caused this kind of damage even given the state of the rusted wall panels.

    Certainly ongoing concern for the state of things on the island and the many birds and turtles who will be, and always have been, at risk from the structures and debris on the island. I offer my support in any way I can to those who have commited so much for so many years. It sounds as though there needs to be a network of former staff and volunteers who help spread the word of this tragedy and the plans to resolve it.

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