Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Sixty-three years ago today: tragedy at Laupahoehoe

At approximately 02:30 Hawaiian Standard Time (HST) on April 1st 1946 a huge earthquake occurred in the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific. It had a moment magnitude of 8.6 and generated an ocean-wide destructive tsunami. Close to the earthquake, at Unimak Island, the tsunami waves were estimated to be over 100-feet high as they struck the shoreline.

Less than five hours later the tsunami reached the Big Island of Hawai`i, well over 2,000 miles away from the epicentre. There was no warning as no system had been set up to provide tsunami warnings in the Pacific despite the fact that the earthquake had been detected by seismometers in Honolulu and at the observatory on Kilauea. The waves killed 159 people on the five main islands but perhaps the most tragic event occurred at Laupahoehoe on the Big Island's Hamakua coast.

Laupahoehoe (Leaf of Lava) is a small town and has a small but beautiful peninsula (Laupahoehoe Point) that extends a few hundred yards into the Pacific ocean. On that early morning schoolchildren were running around and having fun on the school's playing fields before the school day began. Just before 7-am the first wave struck the peninsula. Few realised the danger at first and although a scant-few people escaped the water, most didn't make it and were swept out to sea. Subsequent waves did more harm but the tragedy had already occurred. Twenty-five schoolchildren and teachers were dead.*

The 1946 Aleutian Islands earthquake and the terrible damage and tragedy inflicted around the Pacific, but especially in Hawai`i, led to the creation of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in 1949.

Laupahoehoe Point taken from the cliffs to the south-east.

*Numbers vary slightly according to source.

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