Tsunami Museum, Hilo
A small but informative museum about tsunamis
in general and in particular the ones that hit Hilo on Big Island Hawaii
. Newer additions also cover the mega-disasters of the Indian Ocean tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 and the Japanese tsunami of March 2011.
More background info: Hawaii
has always been prone to tsunamis, both locally (due to its own volcanism and concomitant earthquakes) and from those generated along the Pacific
“Ring of Fire”, especially along the coasts of South America, such as that of Chile
have killed more people on Hawaii than all other natural disasters put together, and that in one of the most active volcanic spots on Earth (cf. Volcanoes National Park
). Yet the ocean's waters are more of a threat than the fires from the bowels of the planet.
The east coast of Big Island is particularly vulnerable, as it faces the most likely source of big tsunamis (i.e. the American coast across the Pacific) and the largest conurbation on the island, its capital Hilo, is especially exposed as it partly sits on low land along a bay facing straight out to the ocean near the island's easternmost tip.
There have been countless tsunamis washing ashore in and around the Hilo area, but two were particularly disastrous in modern history, in 1946 and in 1960.
The 1946 tsunami
that hit Hilo in the early hours of 1 April was certainly no joke: a massive wave, created by an earthquake off the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, washed over Hilo ripping the entire bayfront row of houses from their foundations and pushing debris up the streets beyond. 96 people died in Hilo alone, either crushed by the debris, drowned or washed out to sea. Another 63 were killed elsewhere in Hawaii, bringing the total death toll to 159. The second-worst hit settlement was Laupahoehoe further up the coast where a school building was hit and 25 residents killed, mostly students and teachers at that school (see also under Hawaii
There were smaller-scale tsunamis during the 1950s, but none caused so much destruction. People slowly became complacent again. So when on 23 May 1960
the next big one
hit Hilo, some people, despite the warnings, did not retreat to higher ground but actually even went to the seafront to watch the waves come in. Big mistake. A massive earthquake off the coast of Chile
(at a magnitude of 9.5 it was in fact the largest earthquake ever recorded) had triggered a huge tsunami which eventually rolled in at great speed and hit Hilo. Three successive monster waves crashed through the town, washing onlookers away and again levelling the bayfront row of houses. This time 61 people were killed.
This was enough for some lessons to be learned, finally. The Shinmachi area of bayfront houses, which had been known as “Little Tokyo
” due to its predominantly Japanese population, was not rebuilt. Instead the area was turned into a park. Since 1960 people have generally preferred to build their homes further inland on higher ground – which partly accounts for the spread-out nature of Hilo's cityscape today.
Yet parts of Hilo close to the sea remain vulnerable. Evacuation routes are mapped out in every telephone directory and an early-warning system is in place including sirens that sound an alarm if a tsunami is detected out at sea. (There's still the worry, however, that an actual evacuation may be hampered by traffic jams forming when everybody tries to get to higher ground by car at the same time.)
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, which had been founded in 1949, was in the 1990s and early 2000s equipped with deep-sea detection systems that can accurately detect tsunamis far out at sea before they hit coastal areas all around the Pacific
. After the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami
(see e.g. Banda Aceh
), similar systems were introduced there too, based on the success of the Pacific system.
The Tsunami Museum is housed in a former bank building originally constructed in 1930 and donated to the museum in 1970. It is itself a tsunami survivor – a likely survivor, though, given how sturdy a structure it is.
What there is to see: Before you enter the museum, take a look at the waterline mark on the glass door, which indicates how high the waters reached during the 1946 tsunami.
Once inside the museum, the first large object to attract visitors' attention is a scale model of what Hilo looked like before the 1946 tsunami. You can see that the side of the street opposite the museum used to be densely built up, where now there is just an open seafront park. A museum docent is usually ready to give a little introductory talk about Hilo and tsunamis
– with a special emphasis on awareness of early-warning systems and evacuation routes.
Another mode of introduction is the video film theatre – located in what used to be the vault of the former bank that the museum is housed in. Note the massive steel door! Inside, a ca. 20-minute film with footage from the disastrous 1946 tsunami is shown.
The first exhibition section as such, located in the rooms branching off to the side of the central hall, is about Hilo's history in general. And this already includes quite a few dark elements, not just early tsunamis but also volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, whaling, rebellions and what is called the “Hilo massacre” – which was a 1938 clash between the police and strike picketers … and violent it was, with the police opening fire on the unarmed picketers. 50 men and women were wounded. But nobody actually got killed.
The 1946 tsunami is naturally a main focus of the museum, as is the second big one of 1960 – see above under background. Especially fascinating are the stories of survivors from Laupahoehoe, including that of a teacher who was washed out far to the sea and eventually rescued by her future husband. A large mural of Laupahoehoe as it looked before tsunami complements this section.
The 1950s and the smaller tsunamis during that time are covered too, then the next main section is on the 1960 tsunami. A special feature here are videos with interviews with survivors (esp. of the 1960 tsunami).
Another section is about the “science of tsunamis
”, which is closely linked to that of plate tectonics and earthquakes. You can try your hand at predicting the severity of a possible tsunami after earthquakes on an interactive terminal. There are also artefacts from tsunami-warning systems, such as a bottom pressure recorder.
In the main hall, you can even create a “mini tsunami” yourself in a wave generator tank, a glass display cabinet partially filled with water, which you can set in motion to wash onto little model houses at the other end.
Yet another section is about locally generated tsunamis – as opposed to those resulting from earthquakes far away. One such incident was the Halape tsunami that was generated by an earthquake underneath Kilauea volcano
. A 47 foot (15m) wave washed over a group of boy scouts who were camping out at the Halape peninsula on the island's east coast just below the volcano.
The museum goes beyond just Hawaiian tsunamis and also covers the two more recent mega-tsunamis that shocked the world: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2011 one that battered Japan
and caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The Boxing Day 2004 tsunami is illustrated with photos and personal stories from Thailand
, Sri Lanka
(see also Banda Aceh
!), both in written and recorded form. You can spend a long time listening to all these first-hand accounts on interactive touch-screens. Other clips show footage of the tsunami, yet others provide explanatory animations.
The tsunami of 2011 in Japan
is also illustrated by videos showing the massive waves rolling ashore. On a shelf lie original Japanese magazines with full-colour photo features about the tsunami that you can browse through as well. In a small glass display box in a corner a single china bowl is on display. It was donated by a Japanese family who lost everything but their lives in the tsunami and later found this one intact piece in the rubble that used to be their home. Rather than keeping this memento they wanted it to be displayed here as a symbol of hope and survival.
The museum obviously also has a shop, selling T-shirts, books, DVDs, toys, postcards and so forth. A museum booklet explaining the exhibition is also available in a few foreign languages (French, German, Spanish).
Overall, I found the museum quite impressive. It is small but interesting, with some old-fashioned stylistic elements but also a few contemporary modern features. The narrative is often very touching on a personal level, yet the sober scientific side of its subject matter gets about an equal share. So all in all, the exhibition is very well balanced. A must-visit when in the eastern part of Hawaii
's Big Island!
at 130 Kamehameha Ave, on the bayfront of downtown Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii
Access and costs: easy to find; not too expensive (by US standards).
Details: Getting to the museum from within Hilo is easy: its location right on the bayfront main street, Kamehameha Avenue, is hard to miss. It's towards the north-western end of this main drag.
Opening times: Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. – closed Sundays and Mondays.
Admission: 8 USD (seniors and locals 7 USD, and 4 USD for children aged 6-17)
If you also want to stay in Hilo – for which there are many good reasons (see below under combinations
) – there are plenty of accommodation
options, from standard hotels to budget hostels and old-fashioned B&Bs and lodges.
A particular recommendation is Arnott's Lodge on the eastern edge of town. They offer a range of accommodation options, from camping to dorm rooms to private apartments, and thus cater for all age groups and tourist types. Its main focus is on the outdoorsy active kind of traveller, though. But they also offer the best value guided tours to the summit of Mauna Kea – see under Hawaii
in general – for which they offer discounts if you are staying at the lodge. The place is a bit far from Hilo's downtown (over 3 miles/5km) but you can rent bicycles – or catch the local bus into town.
For food & drink, if you're not self-catering, there are a number of good restaurants in Hilo – amongst them the lovely Ponds at the eastern bottom end of Banyan Drive overlooking a genuine pond (full of koi carp) and the neighbouring lagoon. They serve modern regional Hawaiian dishes as well as standards. Right in the centre is Cafe Pesto, whose spacious main hall with ceiling fans in a historic old downtown building is a popular spot to hang out in – not least for their imaginative, Hawaiian-influenced pizza variations. In addition there are several Thai, Korean and Japanese options, as is typical for Hawaii too.
Hilo is not, however, a party town, so don't expect wild nightlife as in Waikiki or the busier Kona coast resorts.
Time required: if you want to read everything and watch all videos and tsunami survivor/witness testimonies you could probably spend up to half a day here. Most visitors, however, are more selective and “do” the museum in about 45 minutes to one hour.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
A small tsunami memorial can be found in Hilo's Wailoa River State Park to the east of the town centre – where there is also a Vietnam War
Another small tsunami memorial can also be found ca. 25 miles (35 km) further up the Hamakua coast at Laupahoehoe – see under background above and also under Hawaii
in general (photos
). It consists of a stone marker with the names of the victims engraved on it. Nearby is also a panel with some information and various newspaper cuttings from the time of the 1946 tsunami as well as newer ones.
The closest really big dark attraction near Hilo, however, is Volcanoes National Park
. And from Hilo airport you can take scenic helicopter flights
over volcanic action that often is otherwise inaccessible.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Hilo has a reputation of being provincial and always rainy. True, it does rain a lot in Hilo (not all the time though!), but its provincial character is actually an asset, in my eyes. I liked Hilo as an authentic Hawaiian “large village”, rather than a city proper. It has a laid-back and friendly atmosphere, which is only marginally affected by tourism (unless hordes from cruise ships stopping by overrun the place for a few hours – which is when the town is best avoided).
Hilo's compact downtown is calm and almost sleepy – a very far cry from the multi-lane highways of Kona – let alone Honolulu and Waikiki. But it has its pretty bits. See also under Hawaii
in general (photos
There are only a few historic buildings, such as the old Palace Cinema or the Lyman Mission House (and museum). The seafront is now a park – which extends further east to Wailoa River State Park. Jutting out into the bay, Lili'uokalani gardens are a tribute to Hilo's Japanese influence and to the north of the park little Coconut Island is reached by a small footbridge. Further east, Banyan Drive, semi-circumnavigating the golf course, is Hilo's main “hotel row”. It ends at a small lagoon with the delightful Ponds restaurant right above it.
Hilo is also Big Island's best place to stock up on supplies – especially at the regular farmers' market – or, in more typical USA
style, at one of the various shopping malls and supermarkets. Hilo also has the cheapest fuel on the island, so if you have a rental car make sure to fill up here.
The town is obviously a good base for further explorations around the island. Rainbow Falls right on the western edge of the town can even be reached on foot. To get to the more famous (and more scenic) Akaka Falls, however, you'll need a car (or go on a tour).
Especially to the east of town there are a few nice lagoons for swimming and snorkelling – and you can even encounter sea turtles here. Surfers (that classic Hawaiian holiday activity!), on the other hand, can be seen using the seafront just north of downtown Hilo … they even do this at night when the moonlight allows it. But that's more for locals than tourists ...
The latter is also partly true for the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, which is basically Hawaii
's (and hence the world's) biggest hula competition/festival. If that sort of thing rocks your boat, then plan well ahead. Tickets for outsiders are hard to come by (and have to be pre-ordered my mail) and Hilo's accommodation options get fully booked to capacity months ahead as well.
- tsunami museum 1 - sturdy old ex-bank building
- tsunami museum 2 - sign
- tsunami museum 3 - waterline
- tsunami museum 4 - former vault
- tsunami museum 5 - exhibition
- tsunami museum 6 - danger plotter
- tsunami museum 7 - wave simulator
- tsunami museum 8 - other major tsunami disasters are covered too
- tsunami museum 9a - shop
- tsunami museum 9b - evacuation plan for Hilo