70 years on, April Fools' Day tsunami painful reminder of ocean’s destructive force

Updated: Apr. 2, 2016 at 6:56 PM HST
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(Image: NOAA)
(Image: NOAA)
(Image: Pacific Tsunami Museum)
(Image: Pacific Tsunami Museum)
(Image: Ted Lusdy)
(Image: Ted Lusdy)

HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - The first waves hit as the day was just beginning: People were headed to work and to school. And nobody knew what was coming.

Seventy years ago on Friday, the most destructive tsunami in Hawaii's modern history barreled onto island shorelines.

By the time the waves had receded, 159 people were dead, homes, businesses and roads were destroyed, and there was a new appreciation for the sheer destructive force of tsunamis.

Years later, in interviews with the University of Hawaii's Center for Oral History, survivors would recall waves inundating streets and eating up buildings in what seemed like an instant.

"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," James U.C. Low told oral historians. "It was like a wall of water."

Survivor Kapua Heuer said the first waves she saw looked "like a great, big black wall."

"The noise was terrific, the rolling. And then you heard screaming," she said. "You look and people were stomping, trying to reach earth, trying to get out. Dogs swimming around. Then came the crash."

Barbara Muffler, archivist at Pacific Tsunami Museum, said the 1946 tsunami was a wake-up call of sorts.

"In 1946, there was no warning system. If there was a silver lining, it was the warning system that was created," said Muffler, who's written a book about Hawaii's tsunamis.

The tsunami also created a permanent imprint on the consciousness of Hawaii residents. They knew – now – to run from the ocean if the water suddenly receded or to head to higher ground on foot rather than trying to flee in a car that could get stuck in traffic.

It was a 8.6-magnitude earthquake off the Aleutian Islands that triggered the 1946 tsunami. Alaska and California were also hit with tsunami waves. (A 100-foot wave crushed a small Alaskan village, killing all five inhabitants.)

In Hawaii, waves topped 50 feet, survivors later estimated. The wave that hit Hilo was at least three stories tall. And at Laupahoehoe, a schoolhouse was hit with tsunami waves. The teacher and 25 students were killed.

Muffler says 70 years on from the 1946 tsunami, Hawaii residents are still mindful of the danger of the ocean.

"People know better than to be complacent," she said.

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