Surviving a Tsunami

Pictured above is Hilo’s brakewater, built to help protect Hilo against tsunamis.

March 27th is the start of  Tsunami Preparedness Week in Hawaii. To support this important awareness campaign, I wanted to share my mom’s story of how she survived Hilo’s May 23, 1960 tsunami.

My Mom’s Story

The day before the tsunami, my grandpa, who drove taxi tours, took a group to Kona. He left my grandma at home with my mom, her two sisters, and brother. That day, an 8.3 magnitude earthquake hit Chile and Hawaii was put on a tsunami warning. But later, the warning was cancelled and the emergency sirens were tuned off. So, everyone went about their day and eventually went to bed.

At around midnight, my mom woke up and saw my grandma staring out the window at the horrific scene below. People were running for their lives screaming, “The water is coming!” Grandma didn’t drive or own a car, which was common for women at the time, so she didn’t know what to do. Luckily the neighbors knocked on the door and told everyone to get in their car so they could drive to safety. 

My mom remembers being squished in the car, which was packed with people, and the deafening sounds of people screaming and homes being crushed behind them. After that they heard a huge explosion as the waves hit the power plant and the entire city went black. Eventually they made it to safe ground, and later to a relative’s house. 

In the meantime, my grandpa was still in Kona. He made sure his group was taken care of and started the two-hour drive back to Hilo. By the time he got there his house and family were gone. He had no idea they had made it to safety and, at that point, thought he lost everything. 

The next day, my grandma and uncle returned to the house to clean up and salvage what they could. That’s where they reunited with my grandpa, and he learned they were still alive.

Having survived other tsunamis, my grandparents knew how to pick up and move on. Since my mom and her siblings had no toys, they would go “treasure hunting” in the rubble to look for different things. They were always excited to find Meadow Gold popsicle sticks printed with cartoon characters, which is something that was collected at the time.

The Hilo tsunami of 1960 was reported to reach a maximum height of 35 feet, and damages were estimated at $24 million, or $171 million dollars today. 

How You Can Prepare

Today, we’re lucky to have information at our fingertips with smartphones, the Internet, and other technologies. The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency has many resources to educate and prepare you for tsunamis and other types of disasters. You can read more at their website, but here are a few quick tips: