Hilo Tsunami of May 22,1960

With Hilo, Hawaii in danger, of being in the path of the tsunami this morning, it reminds me of the 1960 tsunami which hit Hilo.

The aftermath of the May 22, 1960 tsunami that hit Hilo, Hawaii.

Citizens of Hilo who were alive during the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis understand too well the loss of life and damage that are inflicted by tsunamis.

Tulane University website gives some of the details from those tsunamis:

April 1, 1946 – A magnitude 7.3 earthquake occurred near Unimak Island in the Aleutian Islands west of Alaska, near the Alaska Trench. Sediment accumulating in the trench slumped into the trench and generated a tsunami. A lighthouse at Scotch Gap built of steel reinforced concrete was located on shore at an elevation of 14 m above mean low water. The first wave of the tsunami hit the Scotch Gap area 20 minutes after the earthquake, had a run-up 30 m and completely destroyed the lighthouse. 4.5 hours later the same tsunami reached the Hawaiian Islands after traveling at an average speed of 659 km/hr. As it approached the city of Hilo on the Big Island, it slowed to about 47 km/hr (note that even the fastest human cannot run faster than about 35 km/hr) and had a run-up of 18 m above normal high tide. It killed 159 people (90 in Hilo) and caused $25 million in property damage.

May 22, 1960 – A moment magnitude 9.5 earthquake occurred along the subduction zone off South America. Because the population of Chile is familiar with earthquakes and potential tsunami, most people along the coast moved to higher ground. 15 minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami with a run-up of 4.5 m hit the coast. The first wave then retreated, dragging broken houses and boats back into the ocean. Many people saw this smooth retreat of the sea as a sign they could ride their boats out to sea and recover some of the property swept away by the first wave. But, about 1 hour later, the second wave traveling at a velocity of 166 km/hr crashed in with a run-up of 8 m. This wave crushed boats along the coast and destroyed coastal buildings. This was followed by a third wave traveling at only 83 km/hr that crashed in later with a run-up of 11 m, destroying all that was left of coastal villages. The resulting causalities listed 909 dead with 834 missing. In Hawaii, a tsunami warning system was in place and the tsunami was expected to arrive at 9:57 AM. It hit at 9:58 AM and 61 people died, mostly sightseers that wanted to watch the wave roll in at close range (obviously they were too close). The tsunami continued across the Pacific Ocean, eventually reaching Japan where it killed an additional 185 people.

When stationed temporarily on the Big Island for a short tour of duty there, the damage from the 1960 tsunami could still be seen.

The following article from the U.S. Geological Survey, tells about the waves traveling 425-500 miles per hour, and gives more details of the damage, from the 1960 tsunami, that slammed into the Big Island of Hawaii.

For more information on the 1960 tsunami in Hilo, Hawaii.


Author: Andrew Godfrey

Retired from newspaper work after 38 years. Had served in the Army in Hawaii and Vietnam in the 60's. Am now retired and living in Sulphur, Louisiana.

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