HAWAI'I: Tsunami brings back memories of 1946's 'big one'

March 16, 2011

When the first tsunami alarm sounded at 9 p.m. March 11 in the Laupahoehoe neighborhood of Hawai'i's big island, Leonie Kawaihona Laeha Poy didn't hesitate -- she and her family raced for higher ground.

The same action saved her life in 1946 at the tender age of 15, shortly before the deadliest tsunami on record struck the island. Except then there were no sirens, no warning systems, just her own uncanny instinct and the strange sight of the disappearing ocean.

On March 14, seated outside her childhood home on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Poy, 80, recalled seeing classmates, curious about the receding waters, gathering on the beach in the early morning hours of April 1, 1946.

"I felt something was very wrong," she said. "My brother and I walked to the beach, but there was no water. And if not for pure instinct, we would have been just as curious as all our friends and stayed there."

Instead they woke up her father, a teacher at the Laupahoehoe School just a few yards away, and told him their concerns. "He listened. I'm so thankful he listened or I don't think I would be here today," she said, tears welling up. "We got in the car and started driving away. I looked around and saw the last wave coming. It was as high as the coconut trees."

More than 4,000 people in Japan have been reported dead after the March 11 magnitude-9 earthquake struck that nation, triggering a destructive tsunami that pounded its northeast coast. The earthquake was estimated to be at least 700 times more powerful than the one that hit Haiti in January 2010. The earthquake set off the international Tsunami Warning System and by the end of the day, the waves had wreaked havoc on Hawai'i and the California coast, killing one person, injuring others and causing millions of dollars in damage.

In Hawai'i most of the damage was to property on the Kailua-Kona side of the big island.

But for Poy and other survivors, with each recurring tsunami memories still overwhelm and the pain is fresh, she said.

"Our emotions never were dealt with," said Poy, who still lives above the spot where 24 people, including four teachers, were swept away in 1946. Some bodies were never recovered. "It's with me every time this happens and other times and every April 1. Around here, we don't play April fool's pranks."

The April 1, 1946 tsunami, triggered by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, killed a total of 159 people on the big island. There have also significant tidal waves in 1960 and 1975, according to Roy Daimaru, a docent at the Pacific Tsunami Museum, located in Hilo.

The museum, a nonprofit agency incorporated in 1994, offers education and information in collaboration with the International Tsunami Information Center, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the University of Hawaii as well as state and county civil defense agencies, he said.

Daimaru said that a warning system was established in 1948, two years after the tsunami devastated the Laupahoehoe community, Daimaru said

Clarence Yamamoto, 75, was one of those children on the beach on April 1. Arriving early for school, he saw huge fish beached on the lava rock, after being deposited by the receding ocean waters.

"I stopped to pick them up. I wanted to get as many fish as I could for supper that night," recalled Yamamoto, a parishioner at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, a historically Japanese-American congregation in the Diocese of Los Angeles.

He said an elder Hawaiian woman was warning people away from the beach. "She knew there was something unnatural about the water going out like that," he said in a March 16 telephone interview from Laughlin, Nevada. "But it was April Fool's Day and people thought it could be a prank so a lot of people ignored her.

"She was telling us to get out, get away from the beach," he recalled. "The waters went out and came in and went back out again, three times. Then I saw this wave coming and I knew I had to get out of there.

"I dropped those fish and ran. I ran so fast I jumped over a 5-foot stone wall and just kept going. I never looked back till I reached high ground."

His brother, Tom Yamamoto, 77, has lived in Hilo for most of his life, and was 13 when the tsunami hit in 1946. "No one knew what a tsunami was then," he recalled March 12, standing at a monument erected on the beach at what is now Laupahoehoe Point Park.

"This is where most of the children were when the waves came in," he said. "But we didn't call it tsunami then; we called them tidal waves."

The ages of the victims ranged from three months old to 32; he pointed to names of four members of one family, a mother and three children who died, and to the name Jitsumi Yamamoto, 14, who was "not a relative," he said. Some were classmates, teachers, friends, he said.

He wasn't on the beach that morning, but he remembers difficult times afterward. When news of the March 11 earthquake in Japan broke, the brothers were reluctant to even watch the news on television.

"I didn't even want to look at it, because of the memories from 1946," Clarence Yamamoto recalled. "I knew a lot of people (in Japan) were going to get killed and that it was going to be devastating. I just hope everyone will pull together to help the Japanese people."

Glen Alatan, 55, lost two uncles May 23, 1960 when a tsunami struck Hilo, on the big island, triggered by a magnitude 8.25 earthquake off the west coast of South America.

They had been warned to evacuate but refused to go, he recalled during a March 14 interview at the home of Poy, his mother-in-law.

"I was five years old," Alatan recalled. "I remember my mother talking on the phone to her brother, telling him to come to the country where we were. But he refused to leave his house. He didn't believe the wave was coming in," he said.

"Then she heard him yell out to run. He dropped the phone. That was the last time she spoke to him. Later, they found the bodies of both brothers, about a mile apart.

"That's why I heed the warnings. As soon as I heard the sirens, I took off for higher ground."

It's also why he steers clear of the ocean. "I don't care for it at all," he said. "I don't go in it."

Poy said that's why she devotes much of her time now to education, volunteering to tell her story to classes and at other community events throughout the island.

"I share my story in the hopes it will keep people from going to the dangerous areas when there is a warning. Some people still do that, no matter how much you talk about it.

"I also do it so the children will be educated about tidal waves and what they can do," she said. "And I do it so they will appreciate what they have and take care of what they have."


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