“Mother, remember Kay? She lived two houses away from Renny Brooks, across from the ponds. When the first wave came, Renny ran out and called to her to come with them in their car. She started to go with them, then turned around and ran back. Renny saw a big wave coming and had to go without her. When he came back later the houses were all gone and no one has seen Kay since.”
—Hilo resident Maryann Baker, in a letter to her family shortly after the 1946 Hilo tsunami.
You can’t blame anyone in Hilo for wanting to run back. Although the last major tsunami to strike this tranquil Big Island city was more than 40 years ago—in 1960—the painful memories have never fully receded. The impulse is always there to leap back in time, to undo history, to somehow reclaim the hopes and dreams—and 234 lives—that had been swept away.
“A few hours after the (1946) tsunami, I was called to go down to the icehouse—the Hilo Electric Light Cold Storage Area,” recalled Bob “Steamy” Chow, who was a 24-year-old police officer at the time. “The first locker had been converted into a temporary morgue, and I had to try to identify the victims. It was terrible to see all these youngsters, all dead, covered in sheets. Some kids I knew, some I didn’t. I can still picture this. It still lingers in my mind.”
In 1994, the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo was incorporated. Its mission statement: “We believe that through education and awareness, no one should ever again die in Hawaii due to a tsunami.”
The museum serves as a living monument to the people who lost their lives in past tsunamis. Featured are a series of permanent exhibits that detail the history of tsunamis in the Pacific region; myths and legends about tsunamis; public safety measures in the event of a tsunami; and oral histories that make the tsunami experience “hit home” for each museum visitor.
The Pacific Tsunami Museum is located in downtown Hilo, 130 Kamehameha Avenue. Hours are Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission ranges from free for small children to $8.00 for general. Kama’aina and senior discounts are available.