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The State of Aloha

Unimak Island in the Aleutians was a lonely outpost for the Coast Guard right after the Second World War. Many stationed there felt lucky to wait out the war on the cold chunk of volcanic rock wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. By the war’s end, many were looking forward to finishing their tour and returning home for good, including the five men stationed at the Scotch Cap lighthouse.

Not far from the lighthouse is another building where a Coast Guard electrician, Hoban Sanford, was stationed. He kept a log that recorded what happened during the early morning hours of April 1, 1946.

Sanford heard a horrible groaning coming from the earth. It was an earthquake. Then the water came. “At 0218 a terrible roaring sound was heard followed almost immediately by a very heavy blow against the side of the building and about three inches of water appeared in the galley recreation hall and passage way.”

At dawn, Sanford saw that the lighthouse was completely gone. A wave swept away a steel-reinforced lighthouse a good 90 feet above the ocean and ripped out the rocks and shrubs on the hillside. The only thing left was the concrete foundation. The five men in the lighthouse were gone too. Men discovered an amputated foot, a possible kneecap and some bits of intestine strewn across the hill. It would take another three weeks before the Coast Guard discovered another body and more limbs.

A tsunami like this has two waves. The local wave is the one that moves to the closest shore. In this case, it was the massive wall of water that took the Scotch Cap lighthouse and the five men in it. The other wave surges throughout the entire ocean and is unseen until it reaches shallow water along coasts and islands.

The second wave rolled throughout the Pacific Ocean. It killed a swimmer in Santa Cruz, Calif. It damaged Chilean fishing boats. It even ruined a hut in Antarctica. But the biggest impact occurred here in Hawai’i.

It came to the islands around 7 a.m., five hours after Sanford felt the quake and heard the horrible roaring. On Maui, the ocean surged 300 feet inland. Houses from Kahului to Hana were destroyed. The stores and structures in Lower Paia were badly damaged. Louis Baldovi was just a boy. In his memoir, he recalls school being cancelled (it was a Monday) and sneaking through a pineapple field to look at Maliko Gulch.

From the cliffs he saw “a couple of roofs, furniture and other debris floating in the bay. The water was dirty brown, and the water seemed to be churning. On the other side of the bay, a 30- to 40-foot-high dark brown belt wrapped along the cliffside. That must have been the high-water mark of the wave.”

Hilo got the worst of it. The waters of the bay surged through the streets and swept debris and people out to sea. Donald Ikeda remembers sitting down to breakfast with his family when he saw the water creeping through his house. At first he thought a pipe burst. When he saw fish flopping around the house, he knew it wasn’t the plumbing. The family moved immediately to the roof and were grateful they weren’t swept away like their neighbors.

One hundred fifty-nine people in Hawai’i were killed that day. Many went missing. Damages were estimated at $26 million in 1946 dollars. It took months to rebuild Hilo, Paia and other towns and homes.

Scientists are still trying to pin down exactly what happened. It’s true that an earthquake was recorded in the frigid waters near Unimak Island. But many believe the quake alone could not have caused such a powerful tsunami.

A few years ago, underwater imagery near Unimak Island revealed a massive landslide. Scientists surmised that the earthquake might have caused an underwater landslide that resulted in a massive surge of energy rushing up to the surface. Many think this might explain why the tsunami was so powerful.

The death and destruction in Hawai’i prompted the federal government to establish what is now known as the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, which coordinates with centers in countries sharing the vast ocean to provide up-to-date warnings and watches on earthquakes, eruptions and, of course, tsunamis. It’s the same center that warns folks to this day when to watch out for tidal waves.

Hilo has never forgotten what happened on April Fools’ Day 75 years ago. You can still find street signs in the town clearly marking when you are entering the tsunami evacuation area. And for the folks who still remember that day, the tsunami that ravaged Hawai’i on April Fools’ Day was no laughing matter.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

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