Officials warn that the confirmed death toll from the Maui fires, 80 as of Friday night, will rise as responders begin entering the hundreds of charred buildings in Lahaina. But the fires have already taken more lives than a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 on the island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island.
The history of the 1960 tsunami starts with an even deadlier tsunami that hit the same island in 1946, before Hawaii’s statehood, according to Cindi Preller, the director of the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo. The wave smashed parts of Hilo, a town on the Big Island’s eastern coast, killing more than 150 people. A few years later, the federal government created a tsunami warning center on land that it owned in Honolulu.
In 1960, a 9.5-magnitude quake — the most powerful earthquake ever recorded — rocked Chile. Hawaii had just become a state the year before and its warnings were hesitant at first, according to a book written by the museum’s co-founder, Walter Dudley, titled “Tsunami!”
“A violent earthquake has occurred in Chile. … It is possible that it has generated a large tsunami,” read a bulletin issued by the Honolulu Observatory on the morning of May 23, 1960.
An official tsunami warning was issued that evening, at 6:47 p.m. local time. Sirens sounded in the Hilo area a few hours later, at 8:35 p.m.
Many who had lived through the destruction of the 1946 tsunami evacuated immediately. But some Hilo residents, Ms. Preller said, were dubious about the sirens, thinking such a disaster could never strike again or that it was a false alarm, since other recent tsunami warnings had led to nothing. They stayed put.
The Hawaii County police department “didn’t fully understand or trust” the tsunami warning system, according to Dr. Dudley, and the police and the fire department did not coordinate their efforts.
That left the island in a state of confusion, which worsened with a broadcast from a Honolulu radio station. Scientists had already observed the first of the tsunami’s waves pass, but the radio report pushed back the tsunami’s arrival time, giving listeners the false sense that they had more time to react.
The first wave hit Hilo at 12:25 a.m. on May 24. By the fourth and final wave, much of the town had been destroyed; almost every building in some districts was wiped out. Along with the dead, hundreds of people were injured.
Ms. Preller noted that Hilo did not rebuild much in the areas hit by the tsunami, instead demonstrating what she called the “resiliency of the Hawaiian spirit” by resurrecting them as parks and lagoons, without structures.