Tsunamis, The Big Waves

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 Collection

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.

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 and louder.

Post tidal wave damage to Hilo's bay front buildings. Photo from A.V. Smith Collection

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. photo credit: Kirk Aeder

Two Big Island areas were hardest hit during that disaster. Along the bay front, 90 residents from Hilo’s business district and an area called Shinmachi, a neighborhood of Japanese immigrants living north of the Wailoa River, perished.

At Lapauho‘eho‘e, a few miles north, 20 schoolchildren and four teachers drowned in the huge waves. Laupaho‘eho‘e 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, O‘ahu 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 Hawai‘i 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, 1986—the 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 sound.

Besides the 1946 and 1960 waves, five other tsunamis are known to have taken lives in Hawai‘i. Sixteen people were killed in November 1837 (14 in Hilo, two on Maui), 47 in Ka‘u 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 wasn’t documented until 1819.

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 Kaiko‘o (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 Lapaho‘eho‘e and at Wailoa State Park that serve as sad reminders of the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis.

In 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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