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Historical Events

Tsunamis in Maui County: Oral Histories

At approximately 2:00 AM Hawaiian time on April 1, 1946, an earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter Scale struck the ocean floor off the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. The vertical movement of the sea floor generated a series of waves of enormous magnitude that traveled at speeds averaging 500 miles an hour across the Pacific Ocean towards the Hawaiian Islands.

On Maui, a series of waves struck the northern coast, from Honokohau in the west to Hana in the east, killing 14 people, leaving another 550 homeless, and demolishing 77 homes and other buildings. Another 156 buildings were partially damaged by waves. Hardest hit areas on the island of Moloka‘i were the east end, where several homes at the mouth of Halawa Valley and a suspension bridge were washed away, and the northern coast, where the peninsular settlement of Kalaupapa is located.

The Center for Oral History’s Tsunamis Remembered: Oral Histories of Survivors and Observers in Hawai‘i, featured interviews with thirty individuals, mostly residents of Hilo and Laupahoehoe, who recalled their experiences before, during, and after the 1946 tsunami. An essay written by a Kaua‘i resident, James T. Ohashi, was also included in the volumes. Ohashi recounted his experiences living in Nawiliwili on the Garden Island and the damage inflicted by the 1946 tsunami there.

Interviews with Maui and Moloka‘i residents were conducted in 1999 by the Pacific Tsunami Museum to collect the stories of tsunami survivors and to promote tsunami safety.

Interviewer/researcher Jeanne Johnston of the Pacific Tsunami Museum located some interviewees through archival research in the Maui News files and publicity on the project in the Maui News. Others were located via referrals and meetings arranged by Professor John Pye of Maui, Mr. Randall Watanuki of Kalaupapa, and Pacific Tsunami Museum Advisory Committee member Miles Muraoka of Moloka‘i. Professor Pye’s students who contacted survivors for a science project asked if they were willing to be interviewed. Mr. Watanuki sponsored Ms. Johnston’s stay in Kalaupapa and, like Mr. Muraoka, set up interviews with Moloka‘i residents.

The interviews followed a life history format with emphasis on recollections of tsunami experiences. Interviewees were asked where they were situated as the tsunami hit; what they thought and felt during the ordeal; what they saw, heard, and smelled that day. The interviews concluded with statements of the tsunami’s impact on their lives and the lives of other community members.

The varied perspectives reinforce the notion that different people often experience and recollect the same event in different ways.

Reports of the April 1, 1946 tsunami were dismissed as pranks:

I tell Henry, ‘Something unusual happening.’ I tell him, ‘The wharf is dry. There’s no water there.’ He yell at me, he tell me, ‘Hey, that’s all bull. All bull.’ He said, ‘Don’t forget now, I know today’s April 1. April Fool’s Day.’ I tried my best to convince him, he wouldn’t come out. —Nicholas Ramos

Only terror-filled faces or the sights and sounds of the unusual phenomena convinced others that the tsunami was no joke:

My brother said, ‘Tidal wave!’ I said, ‘Baloney. This is April 1, you think you’re going to . . .’ But, their faces were very white. I said, ‘No, they’re not kidding.’ There must be—that’s why the water went down, I decided. —Anonymous

Still, most were so unfamiliar with the phenomenon, the terms, tidal wave or tsunami, were meaningless:

I remember standing on the deck, looking out. I told you, it had a very shallow ocean bottom. And I watched the water just recede away like someone pulled the plug in a bathtub. And it drained out and kept going. I’d never heard of tsunami, I never heard of tidal wave, I never heard anything like that. —Clare Merrill

For others familiar with the terms, the prospect of seeing a tsunami stimulated their curiosity:

I do remember my grandfather saying that we were going to go down and look at the tidal wave. We never called anything tsunami, it was tidal wave. There was a big tidal wave that had hit Pa‘ia and we were going to go look. —Betty Alberts

Boy, you don’t see nothing but dirty water going out. And then when I went around there you see all kind of type of fish on the ground. You see eels, and what you call this kind of octopus. All this darn thing all scattered around. Boy, you had lot of people coming later run to grab the fish. —Henry Kahula

More than half a century later, many interviewees still remember the tsunami’s destructive force:

It just continued coming. And then as it got onto land, it just lifted the homes—the two wooden frame homes that were on the beachfront—just like crackers, and took them out into the ocean. And just, they just crumbled. —Mae Omuro

It picked up the administration building, turned it right around, when it dropped the building, the main door was facing O‘ahu. It didn’t bother the electricity but it took out our water line. It took out about, roughly, I would say about quarter mile worth of pipes. —Henry Nalaielua

Some barely escaped with their lives:

On the horizon was like a big wall of water. We got in the car and we drove . . . we were caught between our home and the nurse’s cottage, when the car began to float. I said, ‘Willie, let’s leave, let’s get out, let’s get out,’ and he tried to open the door and he couldn’t. We kept bobbing along. And he said, ‘I can’t open the door.’ But as he said that he opened the window, and it released the pressure, so he was able to open the door, so we swam from the car. —Barbara Cannon

They knew it was a tidal wave and they just really escaped, with their lives. They were in their night clothes and my aunt was barefoot and they were running through the kiawes and up to the road and they went quite a ways. I think there’s a train track, they went up to the train track. —Helen Troy von Tempsky

Many lost personal items and other property, livestock, and their livelihoods:

I remember seeing an old trunk, a beautiful trunk. There was like a tray that fits in the typical trunk and that was up. And I remember seeing gold coins and jewelry and stuff in it. And we didn’t touch it. So I, till today, never—I don’t know whatever happened to it. —Eddie Oliveira

There was one piggery farmer there. He had a whole lot of pigs, yeah? Oh, the tidal wave went right into his pig pens and when the tidal wave went back out, wiped out all his pigs. —Samuel Kalilikane, Sr.

We found out that the whole store was a mess. And we tried to salvage whatever we could, and they had a kinda bargain sale after that, but nobody would come and buy those things. And eventually my cousins and uncle and aunt had to move to O‘ahu to start a new life. Their home was little elevated and maybe because of the way the ocean flow was, it wasn’t damaged at all. But it was pretty close to the ocean. But the business and the cafeteria was completely damaged, yeah. —Richard Omuro

Some lost their lives:

Then I seen my aunty up there. They brought her up. She was on the truck and she didn’t have no clothes already, you know? The waves—this wave take everybody’s clothes. . . . So my mom dress her up and then they took her to Hana Hospital. But on the way she died. —Harry Pahukoa, Jr.

Transcripts of the Maui County interviews are available at the University of Hawai‘i system libraries and at Hawai‘i State Regional Libraries.


Link to audioMatthew Kalalau, Sr. describes his and a niece’s escape from the tsunami which rolled onshore at Waikoloa, Maui on April 1, 1946 (.mp3 sound file, 1M).


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



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