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Three tsunamis that changed Hilo and Hawaii's Big Island


May 23, 1960

Time struck: 1:05 a.m. (Hawaii Standard Time)
Source of tsunami: 8.3 magnitude earthquake in Chile.
Maximum wave height: 35 feet
Damages: $24 million ($171 million today)
Deaths: 61 people

This Pacific-wide tsunami was caused by the largest recorded earthquake in the 20th century. Unfortunately, many Hilo residents in the bayfront area refused to leave their homes because of the relatively small damage caused by tsunamis in 1952 and 1957. Additionally, the first few of an eventual succession of eight waves were just over 3 feet, so people who had left low-lying areas returned. Subsequent waves would grow to an overwhelming 35 feet.

As with the 1946 tsunami, the entire Hilo downtown business area suffered heavy damages, and the newly rebuilt Shinmachi town was totally destroyed. Shinmachi was never rebuilt. A portion of Wailoa State Park is now located where Shinmachi once thrived, and much of Hilo's bayfront is now grass-filled park space.

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