The Maui Fires Are More Deadly Than Hawaii’s 1960 Tsunami

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Officials have warned that the death toll from the fires in Maui will continue to rise as responders enter the hundreds of charred buildings in Lahaina. As of Friday night, the confirmed death toll stood at 80, surpassing the number of deaths caused by a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people on the island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island.

The history of the 1960 tsunami begins with an even deadlier tsunami that struck the same island in 1946, before Hawaii became a state. The wave devastated parts of Hilo, a town on the eastern coast of the Big Island, claiming the lives of over 150 people. A few years later, the federal government established a tsunami warning center in Honolulu on land it owned.

In 1960, Chile experienced a 9.5-magnitude earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. Hawaii, which had only recently become a state, initially hesitated in issuing warnings, according to Walter Dudley, the co-founder of the Pacific Tsunami Museum. The Honolulu Observatory issued a bulletin on the morning of May 23, 1960, stating, “A violent earthquake has occurred in Chile… It is possible that it has generated a large tsunami.”

An official tsunami warning was eventually issued in the evening of May 23, at 6:47 p.m. local time. Sirens sounded in the Hilo area a few hours later, at 8:35 p.m. Many residents who had survived the 1946 tsunami immediately evacuated. However, some Hilo residents were skeptical of the sirens, believing another disaster of such magnitude was unlikely or that it was a false alarm, given previous uneventful tsunami warnings. Consequently, they chose to stay.

Dr. Dudley noted that the Hawaii County police department lacked a full understanding of or confidence in the tsunami warning system. Additionally, the police and fire department did not coordinate their efforts, leading to further confusion. A radio broadcast from Honolulu further exacerbated the confusion by pushing back the anticipated arrival time of the tsunami, providing a false sense of security and more time to react.

The first wave hit Hilo at 12:25 a.m. on May 24. By the fourth and final wave, much of the town had been decimated, with entire districts reduced to rubble. Alongside the fatalities, hundreds of people sustained injuries.

In the aftermath of the 1960 tsunami, Hilo decided not to rebuild the areas that were devastated. Instead, they exemplified the resilience of the Hawaiian spirit by transforming those areas into parks and lagoons, devoid of structures.

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