Throwback Thursday: The 1946 Tsunami

Laupahoehoe Tsunami Memorial

Seventy years ago, the April 1, 1946 tsunami hit Hawaii and took more than 150 lives and caused $26 million worth of damage, mainly to the Hilo and Laupahoehoe areas of the Big Island. The killer waves originating from a large 8.6 magnitude earthquake in the Aleutian Islands destroyed the school on Laupahoehoe Point killing students and teachers who were there early that morning. The county seat of Hilo sustained major damage and loss of life. The giant waves destroyed the Hawaii Consolidated Railway system that once ran along the Hamakua Coast.

The dramatic photo at the top illustrates the terror of the approaching wave (center right) as people in Hilo fled to higher ground.

The tsunami caught Hawaii off guard since there was no advanced warning.

Hawaii was hit by two more deadly tsunamis. One was in 1960 and the other in 1975. The most recent tsunami to cause damage in Hawaii was the Japan earthquake tsunami of March 11, 2011.

Today we have a better understanding of earthquakes and tsunamis. An elaborate warning system in place consisting of sirens, satellites, radio and television broadcasts, internet alerts and cell phone text messages.

April is Tsunami Awareness Month. The Hawaii State Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) encourages the public to be prepared for tsunami and other disasters.

“There is no season for tsunamis,” says Vern Miyagi, Administrator of Emergency Management. “During a tsunami threat, people only have hours – sometimes minutes – to move to safety. For this reason, it is crucial that families and individuals have their survival kits ready ahead of time and emergency plans up to date so they can quickly respond and react in a safe and efficient manner.”

HI-EMA further states that “people located within a tsunami evacuation zone should quickly move to higher ground, or inland until they are at least 100 feet above sea level, while avoiding steep cliffs and watching for falling rocks. To find out if you live, work or play within a tsunami evacuation zone, turn to the disaster preparedness pages in your local telephone book or enter your address into the Tsunami Evacuation Zone Map Viewer, which is also linked from HI-EMA’s website at

On Saturday, April 16, the Pacific Tsunami Museum (PTM) in Hilo will host an open house event with free admission to the public. During the event, PTM will unveil its brand new Science Room, which features an interactive Warning Center Simulation, among other activities.

Additional Information: HI-EMA Press Release (3-29-16); Tsunamis Remembered, University of Hawaii Center for Oral History; Laupahoehoe Train MuseumVideo: Leonie Poy, 1946 Laupahohoe Tsunami Survivor



Melvin Ah Ching is a photographer, consultant, blogger, desktop publisher, and computer enthusiast living and working in Hawaii. The Hawaii Files have been online since 2006.