Tsunami threat part of island life; be ready

The recent tsunami scare should be a wake-up call for all of us and a reminder of the reality we face every day.

Hawaii will always be at risk from tsunamis. We are surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and situated in the path of far too many tsunamis generated by earthquakes in far too many countries.

In 1994, scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory analyzed data published by the University of Hawaii and found that Hawaii has been hit by one tsunami every 12 years for at least 157 years.

Using the same data, tsunami expert George Pararas-Carayannis also noted that 85 tsunami events have hit or come close to Hawaii since 1813, when records were first kept.

Fifteen were “significant,” he said, a finding which adds credence to the American Red Cross’ estimate that eight destructive tsunamis have affected Hawaii in the last century.

At least three of these have been catastrophic.

In 1946, a tsunami, considered the worst to hit Hawaii so far, slammed into Hilo on the Big Island, destroying its waterfront, killing at least 159 people and causing $25 million in damages,

In 1957, another tsunami devastated Kauai’s North Shore, wiping out one village and destroying most of the homes in another. Six bridges were washed out, cutting residents off from the rest of the island until repairs could be made.

A third tsunami hit the Big Island again in 1960, killing 61 and causing significant damage to the downtown Hilo area, and other islands, including Maui and Kauai.

The 1946 disaster happened before I was born, so most of what I now know, I learned years after it happened.

My recollections of the 1957 tsunami are very different. My family moved to Kauai five months after it happened. We spent most weekends exploring the island and even though I was very young at the time, I still remember the scenes of devastation and destruction we encountered.

One of my most vivid memories is of my father pointing to a marker on a telephone pole alongside the winding road. He explained that he had been told by people he worked with at Hawaiian Telephone that it marked the highest point the water had reached. I could not believe it could have gotten that high.

(I have since learned that the 1957 “run-up,” used to measure tsunamis once they hit land, was estimated anywhere from 32 to 52 feet above sea level.)

Since 1957, Hawaii has had numerous tsunami advisory situations that either ended up being false alarms or resulting in waves too small to cause much damage. Because of this, there is a real possibility that many people may not realize the very real potential danger posed by a tsunami. When advised to evacuate, they may think only of the inconvenience of detours or the irritation of being stuck in traffic on backed-up roads rather then the fact that doing so could save their lives.

Today’s population includes generations who have never experienced a significant tsunami and many new or fairly new residents who also have no idea of what to expect.

The last catastrophic tsunami was 55 years ago. Many scientists feel it is just a matter of time before the next one.

When it comes to tsunamis, complacency can be a killer and may have been a factor in the 1960 tsunami death toll. Many of the 61 people who died had remained in areas they thought were safe because they had been untouched by the 1946 tsunami. Sadly, they were killed when these areas were inundated by the 1960 waves.

Information may be the key that saves your life or the lives of those you love. There is so much available on the Internet, ranging from historical information and photographs of past tsunamis that can give you an idea of what might occur. There are also suggestions of things your family can and should do ahead of time to prepare. Search for tsunamis in Hawaii or tsunami planning. You’ll find all you need to know.

Establishing a family disaster plan, including an evacuation route and destination is vital. Study the tsunami pages in the front of your telephone directory to see if it is safe to stay where you live or if you should be looking for a safe place to evacuate to.

Children and grandchildren of kupuna tsunami survivors who are still alive should ask them to share what they remember.

Everyone needs to take tsunamis very seriously. Plan what your family should do ahead of time. It may be too late once the sirens go off and the warnings are broadcast. Aloha.

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Rita De Silva is former editor of The Garden Island newspaper and a Hanamaulua resident.

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