Technology advancements 70 years after tsunami devastates Hilo

Even though recent earthquakes did not generate a tsunami, one off Alaska did 70 years ago today, and it was deadly.

But technology has changed since then. Back then, there was no warning system, and now we have faster Internet bandwidth, advances in science, and within minutes, scientists are able to tell us if there is a tsunami threat.

The Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo sent us images of the 1946 tsunami that hit the Big Island, killing more than 150 people.

Photos show the destruction at the bayfront in Hilo and the damage caused to the railroad station.

“Seventy years ago on this day, the 1946 earthquake struck and off the coast of Unimak Island in Alaska and generated a tsunami that was very destructive here in Hawaii and at that time, there was simply no warning system,” said Stuart Weinstein, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center deputy director.

On Friday, scientists showed us a model of the tsunami’s path.

Laupahoehoe Commemoration Ceremony

A ceremony was held Friday at Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School on Hawaii Island in honor of the 1946 tsunami victims and survivors.

The school was inundated by the tsunami waves, killing 20 students and four teachers.

Two survivors recounted what happened that day.

“We heard a loud crack and we looked back and saw the grandstand going over and the boys falling over in the water,” said survivor Violet Decaires-Johnasen. “We stayed there until all the children came by, waiting for my brother and sisters, and they never came so we knew that they had gotten taken with the water.”

“Part of the building was floating in the water, so my mind started working. I said, something is definitely wrong,” said survivor Frank Decaires.

A monument now stands on Laupahoehoe Point.

Technology has changed so much over the last 20 years that the team is able to determine if there is a tsunami threat within minutes after an earthquake. Back in 2000, it could have taken 45 minutes.

“If a large earthquake happens on the Big Island, typically what will happen is the scientist on duty will get paged and he will move into this operations room really quickly and will take a quick look” before advising state civil defense, Weinstein said.

The operations center is staffed 24/7 with two people, and they have two of everything so they can operate even if there is a system failure. They monitor earthquakes and once a warning has been issued, they take a look at what is going on in the ocean using sea-level stations.

“For a large, local earthquake, we probably wouldn’t be relying on the buoys, and there is only one that is fairly close to Hawaii waters anyway,” Weinstein said. “They mostly help us with trying to determine whether a tsunami is going to be destructive as it propagates across the Pacific basin.”

The last time we had a tsunami advisory was in September 2015, following an earthquake of the coast of Chile.

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