Having grown up in Hawaii, I’m used to the occasional earthquake, big surf, an active volcano and unpredictable weather. And then there’s the ever-present threat of a tsunami. While having dinner with my brother this past week, he recounted his story of surviving a 7.7 earthquake, landslide and the largest locally generated tsunami to hit the Big Island in the 20th century.
In 1975, over Thanksgiving weekend, my older brother and cousins decided to go camping in Halapē which sits at the base of the 1,000 foot cliffs of Puu Kapukapu. There were eight hikers in his party ~ most between the ages 19 to 25 and one brought his dad with him. They also had four horses. This is his account as he told us the other night over dinner:
On Friday, 28 November 1975, they hiked in the early afternoon to fish and pick ‘opihi. Once the fish/’opihi were on ice, they had a campfire dinner. He was still awake when the first earthquake hit in the early morning of 29 November. Actually, it was a foreshock measuring 5.2. The second earthquake, measuring 7.7, is the one that rocked the entire area. It bounced the rock he was sitting on so that it moved in a circle. He tried to hang on but after a few seconds he found himself on the ground.
His group, along with the Boy Scout troop also camping in the area, ran for the trail that would lead to higher ground but there was a horrendous noise coming from the mountainside which they knew was a landslide ~ the large falling rocks impeded their ascent. They turned around to avoid being hit by the boulders, but someone screamed they saw the ocean rising. There was no time to do anything else, the wave smashed into the cove and swept him away. He was tumbled under the waves until his need to breathe began urgent; he was certain he would die. His thought was “I now know what it’s like to drown.” He swam as hard as he could to get to the surface and, miraculously, made it to the top long enough to take a big gulp of breath before the second, and much larger, wave slammed into him. He was tousled towards the rock and hung onto a big boulder. His ability to hang on to the boulder is what saved him.
Unbelievably, only two of thirty-two campers perished in the tidal wave. The US Geological Survey estimated the second wave was 14 meters high (just shy of 46 feet). This tsunami was caused by the largest locally generated earthquake (part of Kilauea Volcano) ever recorded in Hawaii history and because the epicenter was only 19 miles from my brother’s location, the waves hit within a matter of minutes. Many of the surviving campers were hospitalized for broken bones, concussions, etc. My brother walked away with one or two scratches. He has one heck of a guardian angel watching out for him. It gives me the chills just thinking about it.
We are currently staying at a beach house right on the water and we see the tsunami signs all along the road. On Friday night (9 July 2016), the tsunami sirens, located directly across the street, jolted us out of bed. We were especially alert due to the story of the 1975 tsunami we had just heard. I’m proud to say the only thing I grabbed was my purse ~ thinking that I needed my license to drive. We headed for higher ground while listening to the radio for further instructions. Turns out it was a system malfunction but I’m not sorry we evacuated ~ better safe than under water.
There’s a scene in the movie Leap Year where the lead male character asks “if your apartment was on fire and you had sixty seconds, what would you grab?” ~ I’m happy to know the only thing that mattered to me was my husband and daughter.
If you’re ever at the beach in Hawaii and there’s an earthquake, don’t hesitate ~ head for the high ground!!
Photos of the aftermath (courtesy of the Pacific Tsunami Museum):