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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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,
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
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