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Historical Events

Tsunamis Remembered

A wooden building stands alone amid rubble.

Kuwahara Store was one of the few structures on the ocean side of Kamehameha Avenue in downtown Hilo to survive the 1946 tsunami. (Pacific Tsunami Museum)

Tsunami, or literally in Japanese, “great harbor waves,” are sea waves generated by volcanic eruptions, underwater landslides, or seafloor ruptures associated with earthquakes. Traveling at varying speeds, the ocean-going waves arrive on land as a series of coastal waves, the largest wave usually somewhere in the middle of the set.

Tsunamis Remembered: Oral Histories of Survivors and Observers in Hawai‘i, a project funded by the Pacific Tsunami Museum, features life history interviews with individuals who witnessed tsunamis — particularly the 1946 and 1960 disasters on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. (Tsunamis in Maui County: Oral Histories features interviews with Maui and Moloka‘i residents conducted in 1999 by the Pacific Tsunami Museum.)

Big Island residents have vivid memories of the April 1, 1946 tsunami. The waves inundated streets, homes, and storefronts. Many of the victims who were not killed by the force of the waves or the debris were swept out to sea by receding water.

“When I looked up, I couldn’t believe my eyes because here was this huge, huge wave, nothing that I’ve ever seen in my life. It was like a wall of water that was rising in the bay and it was just rolling in towards the building . . . By the time I got into that driveway of the gas station, the water had already reached me and I was still sitting in the car. So I was neck deep in water and half petrified because I didn’t know what to do . . . I sat there for a moment and then I felt the car being dragged out. It kind of woke me up so I immediately jumped out of the car through the window.” —James U.C. Low

“I looked out here and saw this great big black wall coming in like this . . . The noise was terrific, the rolling . . . And then you heard the screaming. You look and people were stomping, trying to reach earth, trying to get out. Dogs swimming around. Then came the crash . . . Well, it hit buildings, the lighthouse, and the railroad track, and everything . . . And I said, ‘Oh, that’s good-bye to Hilo.’ ” —Kapua Heuer

At Laupahoehoe Point, waves destroyed teachers’ residences and flooded school grounds, killing twenty-five people, including sixteen students and five teachers of Laupahoehoe School.

“The wave flipped me over and carried me toward the lava rock wall that rimmed the school. I recall telling myself, ‘Gee, I’m going to die. I’m going to hit headfirst into that rock wall and I’m going to die.’ But miraculously, part of the wave that preceded me smashed into the wall and broke it up. So I went flying through the wall, not headfirst into a stationary wall but I was rumbling along, rolling along with all the rocks.” —Masuo Kino

The 1946 tsunami killed 159 people throughout the islands and caused $26 million in property damage. To prevent such widespread loss of life and property, the territory-wide Tsunami Warning System was put in place in 1948 and successfully utilized for the 1952 and 1957 tsunamis. In 1960 the warning system had been established for over a decade, but many residents failed to take the warning seriously or returned to their homes prematurely. The tsunami struck Kamehameha Avenue businesses and the heavily populated Waiakea area at one o’clock in the morning of May 23, 1960.

“The building that we occupied, nothing left . . . We had a lot of mufflers and pipes. We had about 300, 400 pipes and mufflers. They were all washed out about 200 feet up the road . . .  And we had a big safe. Oh, weighed about 300 pounds . . . Later on, one guy said, ‘Hey, there’s one safe way up down the road,’ about 200 or 300 yards up the road.” —Hayato Okino

The tsunami claimed sixty-one lives and resulted in $50 million in property damage. Following the 1960 tsunami cleanup, government and private agencies helped relocate residents and businesses. Areas near the Hilo bayfront devastated by the tsunami were cleared for parks, beaches, a golf course, and open space.

The lessons of the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis were hard earned. The Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo opened its doors in 1997 to educate residents and visitors about the danger of tsunamis, document the social and cultural history of Hawai‘i, and memorialize those who lost their lives in tsunamis past.

Link to audioJeanne Branch Johnston describes her uncle’s rescue of a man caught in the 1946 tsunami (.mp3 sound file, 104K).

Interviewees

The following is a list of individuals interviewed for this oral history project, the years tsunamis affected their lives, and their communities.

Interviewers

 

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