Earthquake History

Much of the early record of Hawaiian earthquakes comes from the diary of Mrs. Sarah J. Lyman, a missionary's wife at Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Mrs. Lyman began her account in 1833 and continued it until her death in 1885; this record was then continued for eleven more years by her descendants. About four or five earthquakes per year were reported.

On February 19, 1834, a strong shock threw down stone walls, stopped clocks, upset bottles, and sloshed milk out of half-full pans. Standing and walking were rendered difficult. A similar earthquake occurred on December 12, 1838. No volcanic activity was noted for either event.

On March 27, 1868, whaling ships at Kawaihae on the west coast of Hawaii observed dense clouds of smoke rising from Mauna Loa's crater, Mokuaweoweo, to a height of several miles and reflecting the bright light from the lava pit. Slight shocks were felt at Kona on the west coast and Kau on the flanks of the volcano. On the 28th, lava broke out on the southwest flank and created a 15-mile flow to the sea. Over 300 strong shocks were felt at Kau and 50 to 60 were felt at Kona. At Kilauea the surface of the ground quivered for days with frequent vigorous shocks that caused lamps, crockery, and chairs to spin around as if animated. One shock resembled that of a cannon projectile striking the ground under the proprietor's bed, causing him to flee, according to the narrative published by C. H. Hitchcock in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America in 1912. Between March 28, 1868, and April 11, over 2000 distinct shocks were felt at Kona.

The main shocks struck on April 2, at 4:00 p.m., and again on April 4 at 12:30 a.m. A magnitude of 7 3/4 was estimated for this earthquake (by Augustine Furumoto in his February 1966 article on the Seismicity of Hawaii in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America) based on the extent of intensity reports. Instrumental recordings, the usual basis for computing magnitudes, were not available at this early date. The shock was felt throughout the islands as far as Niihau some 350 miles away. The ground rolled like a ship at sea and many walls tumbled down. A landslide three miles long and thirty feet thick swept down the hill carrying trees, animals, and men. Thirty-one people and thousands of cattle, sheep, horses, and goats were killed in the one slide. A seawave struck the coast from Hilo to South Cape, being most destructive at Keauhou, Puna, and Honuapo; 180 houses were washed away, and 62 lives were lost to the wave alone. A 10-foot-high wave carried wreckage inland 800 feet. Not a house survived at Honuapo. A stone church and other buildings were destroyed at Punaluu. Maximum wave heights were 65 feet, the highest observed on Hawaii to date. (More on this earthquake.)

An intense earthquake occurred on January 22, 1938, with a magnitude on 6 3/4 and a maximum intensity VIII on Mauna Loa. The epicenter, located under the ocean about 40 miles east of the island of Molokai, was about as far north as earthquakes occur in the Hawaiian chain. On Maui there was general panic with people rushing from theaters. Flashing lights were reported by many. Landslides blocked roads and cut water pipes. Several reservoirs and water tanks were damaged. A chimney fell and a transformer was thrown down at Hana. Windows were broken and walls were cracked at Kula.

It was felt widely on the other islands with some damage on Molokai (pipes broken), Lanai (bottles thrown from shelves), Oahu (organ pipes out of sockets at Honolulu and the seismograph at the University was dismantled), and Hawaii (dishes broken, some chandeliers fell). The earthquake was distinctly felt by two ships at sea.

A severe earthquake occurred on August 21, 1951, and had a maximum intensity of IX and a magnitude of 6.9. Scores of homes were wrecked or damaged on the Kona coast on the west side of Hawaii. Rocks fell from cliffs, causing a 12-foot wave. A landslide covered the famed Pali Kapu o Keoua burial grounds of Hawaiian royalty. Cracks six inches wide opened on th coastal highway. Walls of churches were thrown down in Hookena and houses moved from their foundations at Napoopoo and Kealakekua. Telephone service was out through most of the area. The collapsing of water tanks along the dry Kona coast faced with a two-month dry season made it necessary to truck water from Hilo.

Scores of small earthquakes are reported felt each year.

Hawaii is also exposed to another earthquake threat. In addition to the tectonic and volcanic local earthquakes it is a frequent victim of tsunamis from distant earthquakes. The Catalogue of Tsunamis in the Hawaiian Islands by George Pararas-Carayannis list 85 tsunamis since the earliest reported in 1813 or 1814, of which 15 have caused significant damage. Only four of these, including the 1868 earthquake and tsunami described above, have originated near Hawaii. Most have orginated in the northwest Pacific and near South American coasts.

In 1837 an earthquake in Chile sent waves 20 feet high against Hilo, Hawaii. Initially the sea receded and several were drowned by the returning wave while they were attempting to collect fish stranded on the exposed sea bottom. In all, 62 people were killed and over a hundred homes were destroyed.

The most destructive tsunami in Hawaii occurred on April 1, 1946, following an Aleutian Islands earthquake. Waves 55 feet high, crest to trough, struck the northeast coast of Hawaii. At Hilo, 173 were killed, 163 injured, 488 buildings were demolished and 936 more were damaged. Damage was estimated at $25 million. The waterfront was washed out and breakwater and wharves badly damaged.

This tragic loss of life prompted the formation of the Tsunami Warning System so that Hawaii and the countries bordering the Pacific would never again be surprised by the large destructive waves.

Abridged from Earthquake Information Bulletin, Volume 4, Number 1, January-February 1972.

For a list of earthquakes that have occurred since this article was written, use the Earthquake Search.