Officials have issued a warning that the death toll from the wildfires in Maui, which had reached 80 as of Friday night, is expected to rise as responders begin searching the hundreds of burned buildings in Lahaina. Surpassing the casualties of a 1960 tsunami that claimed the lives of 61 people on the Big Island of Hawaii, the fires have already proven devastating.
The history of the 1960 tsunami can be traced back to an even deadlier tsunami that struck the same island in 1946, before Hawaii had become a state. Cindi Preller, the director of the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo, explains that the wave had severely damaged Hilo, a town on the eastern coast of the Big Island, resulting in over 150 fatalities. In response to this tragedy, the federal government established a tsunami warning center in Honolulu on land it owned.
In 1960, a 9.5-magnitude earthquake, the strongest ever recorded, rocked Chile. At the time, Hawaii had recently achieved statehood, and its warnings were initially hesitant. According to a book written by Walter Dudley, the co-founder of the museum, titled “Tsunami!”, a bulletin issued by the Honolulu Observatory on the morning of May 23, 1960 stated, “A violent earthquake has occurred in Chile. … It is possible that it has generated a large tsunami.”
Later that evening, an official tsunami warning was issued at 6:47 p.m. local time, and sirens sounded in the Hilo area a few hours later at 8:35 p.m. Many individuals who had experienced the devastation caused by the 1946 tsunami immediately evacuated. However, some residents of Hilo were skeptical about the sirens, dismissing the possibility of another disaster or treating it as a false alarm due to previous warnings that had not materialized. They chose to remain in their homes.
Dr. Dudley notes that the Hawaii County police department did not fully understand or trust the tsunami warning system, leading to a lack of coordination between the police and fire departments. The island was left in a state of confusion, which was exacerbated by a radio report from Honolulu. Although scientists had already witnessed the first waves of the tsunami pass, the radio report delayed the expected time of arrival, giving listeners a false sense of more time to react.
The first wave struck Hilo at 12:25 a.m. on May 24. By the fourth and final wave, much of the town had been destroyed, with entire districts reduced to ruins. In addition to the loss of life, hundreds of people were injured.
Remarkably, Ms. Preller points out that Hilo chose not to rebuild extensively in the areas devastated by the tsunami. Instead, these areas were transformed into parks and lagoons as a testament to the resilience of the Hawaiian spirit, devoid of any structures.