Historic Earthquakes

Ka'u District, Island of Hawaii
1868 04 03 02:25 UTC (04/02/1868 local)
Magnitude 7.9

Largest Earthquake in Hawaii

Ka'u District, Hawaii

This major earthquake caused 77 deaths (tsunami, 46; landslide, 31). It knocked almost all wooden houses off their foundations in the Keiawa, Punaluu, and Ninole areas. In those areas, straw houses supported by posts in the ground reportedly were "torn to shreds." At Kau, the more substantial houses and every stone wall were thrown down. At Waiohinu, a large stone church collapsed within 10 seconds of the onset of shaking. The shock "ruined" the few stone buildings in Hilo and shook down almost every wall. Brooks became muddy.

At Kealakeku, strong trees were bent backward and forward "like reeds in a storm." Ground waves as much as 0.6 meters from ground to crest were observed at Kohala. The motion was so violent at Ulupalakua that it was difficult for people to stand. Reports from Keaiwa and Kiolakaa suggest that vertical accelerations larger than 1g may have occurred.

Extensive surface effects were observed in the epicentral region. Ground fissures extended from Pahala to Kilauea. At Kohuku, a fissure about 5 kilometers long was reported. A volcanic eruption took place from that fissure a few days later, on April 7.

Landslides, which occurred beyond Hilo as far as Waipio and Hamaku, buried 10 houses in the area. A mass of earth as much as 3 kilometers wide and 9 meters thick swept down the hillside at Kapapala, carrying with it trees, animals, and people. Thirty-one people were killed.

Along the Puna coast from Kapoho to Apua, the land subsided in places as much as 2 meters. At Kaimu, trees stood about 2.5 meters deep in sand and water. The plain at Kalapana sank about 2 meters, and water stood as much as 1.5 meters deep over 8 hectares (20 acres) of formerly dry land.

A tsunami that struck the Kau-Puna coast added to the devastation. The waves were most destructive at Honuapo, Keauhou, and Punaluu. At Keauhou (now Keauhou Landing) the water rose 12-15 meters, destroying all the houses and warehouses and drowning 46 people. At Hilo, the height of the wave was about 3 meters, and at Kealakekua, 2 meters. The tsunami also was observed on Maui and Oahu. Also felt on Lanai, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai (about 560 kilometers from the epicenter).

Abridged from Seismicity of the United States, 1568-1989 (Revised), by Carl W. Stover and Jerry L. Coffman, U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1527, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1993.

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