Yesterday’s “Where is it?” tsunami warning reminded me of Hilo on May 23, 1960. A huge tidal wave – a 50-footer – came smashing into my hometown on the Big Island of Hawaii during the early morning hours . It rumbled through Hilo Bay, traveling all the way from Chile, grew to enormous proportions because of the bay's geology, and turned sleepy Hilo downtown into a bunch of twisted wreckage.
Most of the Kamehameha Avenue stores suffered some damage (the closer you got to Waianuenue Avenue, the lighter the damage), but the brunt of the devastation came from Mamo Street down to the Waialua River and Waiakea town.
Where once there was an uninterrupted line of stores, there now was nothing standing along Kamehameha Avenue. The Boy's Club was gone. The old Pick and Pay supermarket was gone. Mamo Theater was still there, but the Mooheau Theater was nowhere to be seen. The Hilo Theater was gutted (witnesses said the wave completely covered the 50-foot-tall theater).
Waiakea Town was gone. The new Cafe 100 was gone. Dozens of fishing sampans were gone. Hilo's only bowling alley was gone. Sun Sun Lau Chop Suey was gone. The Hobby House was gone. Moto's Inn was gone.
"The Wave," as it came to be known, rolled in while most of Hilo was asleep in darkness. Actually, I didn't even know we were expecting a tidal wave. I woke up that morning to a voice saying, "Katie died." That was Dad. He had just come back from the hospital where he and other doctors had spent hours tending to the injured. In all, 61 people died that night, most of them because they didn't heed the warnings, and either stayed in their waterfront homes, or went downtown to watch the wave come in.
Katie was a waitress at Standard Drug. Wonderful Irish lady who had married a local Japanese. Everyone knew her, and she knew everyone. She died that morning despite Dad's attempts to save her life.
Through my drowsiness, I pieced together fragments of the story. Mom notice I had wakened, and filled me in on what had gone on in the wee hours of the morning. It was quite dreadful.
Of course, we didn't have a TV station in Hilo, so we had to rely on the radio reports. The announcements rolled in. All school was canceled until further notice as Hilo High School was being used as an emergency shelter (school wouldn't re-open for a couple of weeks). Boil your water before drinking in case the pipes had cracked and supplies were contaminated. Electricity will be turned back on as soon as possible. Volunteers were needed to help recover missing people from wrecked buildings. Once those who could be saved were rescued, and once most of those who died were recovered, the clean-up began. Students (boys especially) who wanted to help were asked to report to Hilo High to get tetanus shots before starting, and to bring gloves and shovels.
We heard disturbing stories about the carnage. About the man who was found dead in bed with a woman (not his wife). About heads separating from bodies as they were being taken from wreckage. About the stink of rotten human flesh. About the people who had died, including my friend's sister.
The newspaper was filled with pictures – some horrific, many fascinating. Rubble and wreckage. Parking meters bent horizontal to the ground by the force of the water. Familiar landmark buildings no longer there. A broken clock stopped at the exact moment the wave hit. People cleaning up.
Dad suggested that I call my classmate's father, who owned Standard Drug, and offer to help them clean up. When I called, Mr. Hara asked if my Dad had told me to call, and I lied. I said no. Thanks, he said, but they had things under control, and I was a good kid for calling.
The bridge to Coconut Island was washed out as well. It was the first bridge ever to connect with the island. Up to the time it was constructed, you had to go over by rowboat – quite an experience in itself – or wait until low tide and wade over, ever vigilant for deep water channels. A new one was built to replace it, one with modifications to withstand any future tsunamis.
A few days after the tidal wave, when Kamehameha Avenue was re-opened, Dad took us downtown to look at the wreckage. Every single building from Mamo Street to Waiakea Town was gutted, falling, or completely down. The town sort of reminded me of the sugarcane field in the back of our house, while the harvesters were working on it. And yet, with all the devastation and ruin around, you could see people cleaning up the stores, washing down the streets, installing new glass windows, painting their storefronts, and putting their lives back in order.
Hilo changed a lot after the tidal wave. The whole town moved back, up to higher ground. Tidal wave safety zones were set up, and the town adapted.
We all changed, we all adapted. What an experience.