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Hawai’i Island Tsunami

Hawai'i Island Tsunami

Devastating Tidal Waves

Big Island Hawai’i

Tsunami’s (tidal waves) in Hawai’i don’t happen very often, but living on an island, in a coastal town you’re aware of tsunami threats. Three major tsunami’s have changed the town of Hilo, Hawai’i and nearby communities of Laupāhoehoe and Kalapana.

The last three tsunami’s that caused significant damage to property and land formation occurred in 1946, 1960 and 1975.

April 1, 1946 (April Fools Tsunami) the Aleutian Islands, Alaska experienced a 7.1 magnitude earthquake. Less 5 hours later, at 6:54am Hawai’i Standard Time the town of Hilo was struck with a series of seven waves with a maximum height of 50 feet destroyed the town in a matter of just 15 minutes. Damage was estimated at $26 million ($350 million today) and 159 lives where lost.

The April 1, 1946 wave also struck the Hamakua Coast town of Laupāhoehoe, killing 25 people including students and teachers whose school was located on Laupāhoehoe Point. The devastation prompted the establishment of a territory-wide Tsunami Warning System in 1948.

On May 23, 1960 the largest recorded earthquake of 8.3 magnitude in the 20th century occurred off the South American country of Chile. In the darkness of night, 1:05am Hawai’i Standard Time a series of waves with a maximum height of 35 feet reached Hilo. Damage was estimated at $24 million ($175 million today) and 61 people lost their lives allegedly due to people’s failure to evacuate and heed warning sirens during the overnight hours.

November 29, 1975 residents were awakened at 3:35am by a 7.4 magnitude earthquake centered near Kalapana in the Puna District of Hawai’i Island. A series of waves hit coastal areas from Ka’u to Hamakua. Damage was minimal, $1.5 million (8 million today). At Halape, a remote beach park area between Kalapana & Pahala 32 campers were trapped by landslides caused by the earthquake and 26 foot waves from the tsunami. Two campers lost their lives.

The Pacific Tsunami Museum (originally, the Hilo Tsunami Museum) is a museum in Hilo, Hawaii dedicated to the history of the April 1, 1946 Pacific tsunami and the May 23, 1960 Chilean tsunami which devastated much of the east coast of the Big Island, especially Hilo. The museum also has a mission to educate people in general about tsunamis, including the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. It is located at 130 Kamehameha Avenue, at the intersection of Kamehameha and Kalakaua in downtown Hilo.

Shinmachi meaning “New Town” in Japanese was a small, but thriving community within Hilo town. Shinmachi was destroyed in the 1946 tsunami. Residents refused to be defeated and rebuilt Shinmachi. A short 14 years later, Shinmachi was flattened by the 1960 tsunami.

Today we know the area as part of Wailoa River State Recreation Area. Wailoa Center is centrally located in the park next to the Tsunami Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, and Korean War Memorial across the river from the King Kamehameha Statue.

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