Pacific Tsunami Museum informs with blend of science, history

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HILO, Hawaii -- The Pacific Tsunami Museum tells the bone-chilling story of death and destruction wrought by the various tsunamis that have hit here over the years, leveling whole neighborhoods and nearby towns.

According to its mission statement, the museum, which opened in 1998, has the purpose of educating people about tsunamis and serving as a living memorial to those who lost their lives in past tsunami events.

It aims to combine scientific information and testimony from the oral history of tsunami survivors to achieve those ends.

A tsunami is an onrushing wave of water usually caused by an undersea earthquake.

Tsunamis can travel at speeds of up to 500 mph and have hit Hilo with waves 50 feet high.

Coming all the way from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, off the coast of South America or anywhere there is a disturbance of sea water, they can take up to six hours to reach this peaceful, yet unlucky town.

In the open, ocean tsunamis are usually just a few feet high. But when they hit shallow water near land, they rise and can brutalize whatever is in their way when they hit shore.

The museum is housed in a sturdy former bank building that weathered tsunamis in 1946 and 1960. It is directly across the street from where the next tsunami is expected to come over the sea wall.

"We have set it up so that everything in the front of the building can be replaced," just in case another one hits soon, said museum director Donna Saiki.

Its most recent exhibit, which opened in February, is the "Story of Hilo."

As detailed in the exhibit, the first recorded tsunami in Hilo was in 1837, just as Congregationalist missionaries were descending on the Hawaiian islands to convert the locals.

"Rev. Titus Coen was looking for a sign from God to show the people His power, and he got one" in the form of a tsunami, said Saiki.

Major tsunamis have since hit the Hilo area in 1877, 1922, 1923, 1946, 1960 and 1975. The most devastating were those of 1946 and 1960, said Saiki.

In 1960, 61 people died in Hilo. The town was caught off guard, and many people were killed for reasons relating to human error, said Saiki.

One crucial event was the changing of the tsunami warning siren from one to three blasts. This resulted in confusion as "not everyone got the message that the warning had been changed, so that night people heard the first warning and waited for the next one," said Saiki. "Many people were just packing up when it hit."

Another factor that led to the deaths in 1960 was a sense of complacency that people got after several tsunami warnings during the 1950s that preceded small, harmless waves, said Saiki.

On May 23, 1960, the tsunami was expected to hit at 12:30 a.m. "At 12 the waters fluctuated and everyone was evacuated, and at 12:30 nothing happened," said Saiki. "Everyone thought it was over. Then at 1 a.m. it just barreled in. Many people went to bed that night thinking it was all over."

And it was for many. Three waves hit the area that morning, each one coming farther inland than the previous one.

A dedication to all those who died in the 1960 tsunami was held recently for the first time.

What is now Wailoa River State Park in Hilo used to be an area called Shinmachi.

The whole area was leveled in the 1960 tsunami, and today one can still see street curbs and driveway entrances around the park where the town once stood.

The most devastating tsunami of recent times arrived on April 1, 1946, when 173 people died in a tsunami that hit the Big Island as well as other Hawaiian islands.

At that time there was no system in place to warn anyone.

One of the exhibits at the Pacific Tsunami Museum tells the story of the Big Island village of Lau pa Hoe Hoe, where 24 students and teachers lost their lives in the 1946 tsunami.

Not knowing the tsunami was approaching, the children and teachers ventured out on an ocean reef -- a reef normally under water but which had been sucked dry by the approaching wave -- and were killed when the tsunami struck.

In 1975 a major earthquake shook the Big Island, and the resulting tsunami killed two campers on the coast at Halape.

In addition to the history exhibit, the museum has an Ocean Science Center with ocean buoy readings and tsunami statistics, a children's corner and a video theater showing tsunami documentaries and video oral histories.

"Much of what we present is done the Hawaiian way through stories people tell us," said Saiki. "We have 115 video oral histories about tsunamis."

According to the museum's Web site, "in terms of property damage and loss of human life from tsunamis, Hilo surpasses all other areas in Hawaii, and consequently has the reputation as the tsunami capital of the U.S."

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and charges $5 for adults, $4 for seniors over the age of 60 and $2 for students.

Pacific Tsunami Museum
Phone: (808) 935-0926
Web: www.tsunami.org

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