By Mike Davis
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Tsunami: The Archipelago of Horror

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Mike Davis recalls another tsunami tragedy, and asks what lessons can be learned.
Issue 292

Laupahoehoe in Hawaiian means ‘foot of lava’. Thousands of years ago lava cascaded down a steep canyon on the side of mighty Mauna Kea and created a flat shelf between the towering cliffs of the Hamakua coast on the eastern shore of the island of Hawaii. Laupahoehoe Point became a ceremonial centre of great importance to native Hawaiians as well as the only canoe landing place along 50 miles of rugged coast.

In the early 20th century sugar plantations climbed the flanks of Mauna Kea, and the local school was located out on the Point: an idyllic spot under the palms, only 100 feet from the beach. But on the morning of 1 April 1946, following a great earthquake in the Aleutian Islands, a mountainous tsunami struck the Hamakua coast without warning.

Children were just arriving at Laupahoehoe School when the ocean suddenly receded, exposing the coral reef and sea bottom. Flabbergasted students and teachers ran to the beach. Then the sea returned as a 30 foot high wall of water. Children screamed and ran towards the school buildings. Twenty four never made it. They were swept out to sea and lost forever.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy I was living in Laupahoehoe and joined several hundred of my neighbours for a memorial ceremony out at the Point. Tents were set up so that old timers could ‘talk story’ to the community’s children, giving vivid accounts of that terrible day in 1946. Students recorded the testimonies.

Leonie Kawaihona Laeha, one of the survivors, remembered that ‘it was very high, coming over the coconut trees. All the kids who had been down by the beach were running up the road and through the park.’ Nearby 16 year old Yasu Gusukuma witnessed ‘water coming from all sides of the Point and boiling in the centre. Cottages were spinning on top of the water, the grandstand collapsed, and she ran up the hill as fast as she could.’ Others recalled how some kids were killed instantly as the tsunami dashed them against rocks or hurled them through trees. But more than a dozen were swept alive into the shark-infested waters. ‘Some of the boys tried to swim out, tied to ropes, and grab children floating by. But they were too far away.’

Before nightfall rescuers in a borrowed yacht saved two boys clinging to a luahala tree as well as a teacher who managed to reach one of the rubber rafts dropped by navy planes. Three more children were rescued the next morning, but others, seen on makeshift rafts down the coast, were never found.

Fifty years later the tragedy was still heartbreaking. After a morning of recollection and story telling, everyone gathered in the community centre for a feast of luau pig, rice and poi. A few older people poked around sadly in the vine-covered ruins of the little kids’ restrooms destroyed in 1946; the tiny, rusted sinks were especially poignant.

In the afternoon all of Laupahoehoe, led by the school band, marched down to the modest lava monument engraved with the names of the dead children and their young teachers. The choir sang a moving hymn in Hawaiian, followed by ecumenical prayers from the Catholics, Buddhists and Mormons. The school principal, Jane Uyehara, reminded us that the Point, ‘this beautiful, special place’, was ‘God’s grace on the dead’. Many of us cried, as waves thundered around us.

Now from Somalia to Sumatra there are hundreds, even thousands, of Laupahoehoes, each with its own local tale of awe, death and heroism. An archipelago of horror and grief stretches across the Indian Ocean. Fifty years from now eyes will still moisten at the memory of 26 December 2004.

What lessons can be learned from such catastrophes? The Big Island of Hawaii, which suffered another tsunami tragedy in 1960, is now protected by a state of the art early warning system. There are sirens at the beaches, impressive new breakwaters, and some low-lying areas have never been rebuilt. The volcanoes and subduction zones that ring the Pacific Basin make deadly tsunamis inevitable each generation or so.

But even giant waves moving at the speed of jet airliners still take hours to cross great oceans. Thousands could have been saved last month in the Indian Ocean by a simple phone call or radio message coupled with local emergency organisation. Rich countries, as well as poor, need to take responsibility for the construction of a truly global system of coastal early warning and geophysical security. With a majority of humanity now living in coastal regions, such a system is an inescapable and obvious priority.

At the same time, killer tsunamis are relatively rare events in the Indian Ocean. Coastal flooding and sea-level rise, on the other hand, are mortal dangers to tens of millions. No large country is more at risk from the impacts of global warming – especially the combination of more frequent and powerful typhoons with rising sea levels – than Bangladesh. Storm flooding regularly kills tens of thousands and spreads epidemic diseases like cholera.

Billions are being spent to save the treasures of Venice from inundation, but millions of lives are at equally imminent risk in the Gulf of Bengal. Likewise the waves that swept across the Maldives and the Andamans last weekend were a horrifying reminder that entire island nations are drowning. The industrial countries whose automobiles and polluting industries have changed the world’s climate need to shoulder the burden of helping to protect poor coastal dwellers from the coming waters.

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