Officials tell residents to be aware of tsunamis’ perils
It’s no coincidence that April is Tsunami Awareness Month in Hawaii. Seventy years ago today the islands were pounded by one of the most destructive tsunamis in the 20th century, a series of massive waves that took 159 lives and caused more than$26 million in damage across the state.
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It’s no coincidence that April is Tsunami Awareness Month in Hawaii.
Seventy years ago today the islands were pounded by one of the most destructive tsunamis in the 20th century, a series of massive waves that took 159 lives and caused more than $26 million in damage across the state.
Hilo took the biggest hit on April 1, 1946. Triggered by a large undersea earthquake near the Aleutian Islands, the waves devastated much of the waterfront downtown.
“The third wave was the largest,” said Barbara Muffler, archivist and curator at the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo. “A 35-foot wave struck downtown Hilo. It was said that Hilo Bay emptied out to the breakwater before it came in.”
A tsunami evacuation drill will be held today at Jefferson Elementary in Waikiki — one of 24 public schools in Hawaii located in tsunami evacuation zones — following the scheduled monthly test of the statewide outdoor siren warning system at 11:45 a.m.
Hawaii Emergency Management Agency officials are urging Hawaii residents to get serious about tsunami preparedness.
“There is no season for tsunamis,” state Administrator of Emergency Management Vern Miyagi said in a news release.
Because of its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii is especially vulnerable. Tsunamis generated by distant earthquakes along the Pacific’s Ring of Fire can reach Hawaii within several hours. Locally generated tsunamis from earthquakes or volcanic activity can make landfall in a matter of minutes.
“During a tsunami threat people only have hours — sometimes minutes — to move to safety. For this reason it is crucial that families and individuals have their survival kits ready ahead of time and emergency plans up to date so they can quickly respond and react in a safe and efficient manner,” Miyagi said.
There was no warning system of any kind in 1946. The tsunami struck Hilo at about 7 a.m. just as many workers were heading to work.
“The bay-front businesses were tossed around and left in a tangled mess,” said Muffler, author of “Hawai‘i Tsunamis.”
Ninety-six people died at Hilo, she said, while 24 Hawaii island residents died elsewhere. Tsunami waves from the 8.1-magnitude earthquake charged across the Pacific, killing dozens up and down the island chain and creating devastation from California to South America.
Hilo was especially vulnerable because the north-facing bay acted like a funnel for the waves, Muffler said, and the town was built up right down to the water’s edge.
But the town would rebound. “The people of Hilo demonstrated a resilience and tenacity in the face of adversity. Everybody pitched in,” she said.
If there was a silver lining to the tsunami, it was that the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was built in Ewa Beach in 1948.
But even with that, a measure of complacency set in as Hilo was cautioned against a number of smaller, harmless tsunamis, Muffler said, and by 1960, when another big one pounded Hilo, 61 people died.
Today Hilo doesn’t look like it did before the 1946 tsunami. Parks and natural areas are now growing green in the most vulnerable areas, giving the town a bit of a cushion.
But potential danger is always across the horizon.
“It is not a matter of if, but when the next tsunami will strike our shores, and people need to be aware, prepared and safe,” she said.
On April 16 the Pacific Tsunami Museum will host a free open house featuring experts from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and other agencies. The event, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., will also feature the unveiling of a new science exhibit that features an interactive warning center simulation, among other activities.
The simulation allows visitors to jump on a world map and generate an earthquake. From there the player is faced with several questions that would be considered by the real Pacific Tsunami Warning Center before making critical decisions, including when and whether to issue a tsunami warning.
The museum is in Hilo at 130 Kamehameha Ave. The telephone number is 935-0926.
Gov. David Ige and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell will not be visiting Jefferson Elementary in Waikiki today. Their offices will be sending representatives to attend the event. An earlier version of this story said that Ige and Caldwell would visit the school.