by Betty Fullard-Leo
The tsunami that pounded
the northeastern shores of the Big Island on April
1, 1946 was the cruelest April Fool's trick that
Mother Nature could have played. In a matter of
moments, more than 1,300 homes were swept away,
and 159 people were killed. Photo from Yasuki Arakaki
The tsunami that pounded the northeastern shores of
the Big Island on April 1, 1946 was the cruelest April
Fools trick that Mother Nature could have played.
In a matter of moments, more than 1,300 homes were swept
away, and 159 people were killed.
Tuck Wah Lee was a 27-year old stevedore at the time
working in a dockside warehouse. He heard someone yell
from the dock outside that the water was disappearing
in the bay. While other stevedores ran to pick up fish
flopping on the damp sand, Lee scurried up a Coast Guard
tower to get a better look at the bay. Years later,
he told a Big Island news reporter, I saw a brown wall
of water coming in. The wall got higher and higher,
and the whistling sound that came with it got louder
Post tidal wave damage
to Hilo's bay front buildings. Photo from A.V. Smith
He climbed a scaffolding ladder, his legs just two
feet above the water as it smashed through the warehouse.
Two-ton boulders were rolling about the bay, and he
saw a railroad car rise three feet off the tracks from
the force of the giant wave.
When the water lulled, Lee jumped into the bay and
swam for a nearby ship that had a gangplank extended
into the water. As he hurried aboard, a second wave
dashed away the gangplank. The captain swung about and
headed for Maui. That night Lee called his wife to tell
her he had survived.
Today Kayakers enjoy
paddling in Hilo Bay.
Two Big Island areas were hardest hit during that disaster.
Along the bay front, 90 residents from Hilos business
district and an area called Shinmachi, a neighborhood
of Japanese immigrants living north of the Wailoa River,
At Lapauhoehoe, a few miles north, 20 schoolchildren
and four teachers drowned in the huge waves. Laupahoehoe
resident Leonie Kawaihona Laeha Poy was a teenager getting
ready for school when she noticed that all her friends
had lined up beside the seashore. She and her brother
Will hurried down to join them, but when they saw there
was no water, they knew something was terribly wrong.
They rushed home and their father quickly herded them
into the car to head for higher ground. From the rear
window of the car the 18-year-old student saw the waves
washing over the coconut trees. From the safety of a
rock wall she watched the teachers cottages, the
shop building, the bathroom facilities all get washed
away. Worst of all, schoolchildren she knew climbed
onto the bandstand, but when the wave hit, it broke
into kindling, and she could see her classmates bobbing
helplessly about in the water.
That tsunami, generated by an earthquake in the eastern
Aleutian Islands, was the worst recorded in recent history
for the Hawaiian Islands, while a 1960 tsunami from
Southern Chile was nearly as bad. On the Big Island,
61 people were killed and 282 injured in the waves that
hit on May 22, 1960.
Surveying the damage
to hilo after the 1946 tsunami Photo courtesy of
Cecilia Lucas Collection
After the 1946 tsunami, scientists developed a warning
system in 1947-48 that has detected every Pacific-wide
tsunami since. Generally tsunamis are generated by the
rippling of the ocean floor when an earthquake occurs,
so seismographs, oceanographers, tide gauges and observers
all work to detect changes indicated on instruments
at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center at Ewa Beach,
Oahu and other places throughout the Islands.
Waves generated by an earthquake of a 7.5 magnitude
on the Richter scale occur 10 to 20 minutes apart and
travel at about 500 miles an hour, so Hawaii usually
has several hours when sirens along the beach can warn
residents to evacuate.
Unfortunately, the more time that elapses between tsunamis,
the more complacent people become about evacuating.
Most recently, smaller waves hit the Hawaiian Islands
on March 27, 1964, November 29, 1975, and May 7, 1986the
11 year lapses are just long enough to let people forget
the dire consequences. Sometimes, surfers head for the
ocean, hoping to catch that big wave, when warnings
Besides the 1946 and 1960 waves, five other tsunamis
are known to have taken lives in Hawaii. Sixteen
people were killed in November 1837 (14 in Hilo, two
on Maui), 47 in Kau on April 1868, five in Hilo
on May 1877, one Hilo fisherman in February 1923, and
in November 1975, two campers on the Kona Coast were
washed out to sea. Because the Hawaiians kept only oral
histories, the first tsunami wasnt documented
It was the 1960 tsunami that sparked legislation to
establish a greenbelt in the hardest hit area of Hilo
to prevent future losses of life and business. Dubbed
Project Kaikoo (Rough Seas), tax benefits were
granted to businesses and individuals to relocate. Part
of the area was filled to a height of 30 feet, and when
simulated waves over models of the area illustrated
that the waves would no longer endanger that area, state
buildings were erected there. Today, Wailoa State Park
on the bayside of the state buildings, is a lovely,
serene park with waterways shared by ducks and kayakers.
Monuments have been erected at Lapahoehoe
and at Wailoa State Park that serve as sad reminders
of the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis.
the last few years, the community has gotten behind
the establishment of a Pacific Tsunami Museum. The museum,
located in the former First Hawaiian Bank Building at
130 Kamehameha Avenue in Hilo, has photo exhibits, charts
and maps that show the paths of previous tsunamis to
wash over the Big Island. A video pictures early footage,
as well as more recent interviews with survivors who
remember the terror of those days. Admittance to the
museum is free, though a donation is requested for its
continuing development. For further information and
opening hours, phone (808) 935-0926.
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