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One Year Ago: Tsunami in Hawaii

March 10, 2012

Last year's tsunami swept across Midway Atoll's Eastern Island spreading plastic debris and killing over 100,000 birds on Midway Atoll alone. (Photo: NOAA)

One year ago this weekend, a massive earthquake in Japan generated a tsunami that struck the Hawaiian Islands. Although there was no loss of human life in Hawaii, the waves damaged cultural and historical sites in some of our National Parks and killed a vast number of birds and other wildlife. Just on Midway Atoll in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, over 100,000 tropical seabirds were killed.

Boy Scout Troop 31 (Kailua-Kona) assisted Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park in removing tsunami debris from the park's shoreline.

However, this disaster brought out the best in island residents and visitors who volunteered to help in the recovery efforts, like the members of  Boy Scout Troop 31 of Kailua-Kona, who helped removed debris from Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park. National Park Service staff and volunteers also worked tirelessly in the recovery of Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, where portions of the park had to be closed for several weeks following last year’s tsunami.

The ocean receding from Pelekane Bay at Pu`ukohola Heiau National Historic Site during last year's tsunami.

At Pu`ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, the tsunami seemed to do more good than harm, clearing the park’s Royal Courtyard (Pelekane) of debris that had been deposited from a recent flash-flood event. For the 36-hours or so after the tsunami, park staff and visitors there witnessed a series of dramatic emptying and filling events of Pelekane Bay.

Like the Hawaiian Islands, the islands of American Samoa, Guam and Saipan are all vulnerable to the destruction caused by tsunamis. Here, park staff of the National Park of American Samoa stand in front of the park's new headquarters building in January, 2012. On September 29, 2009 a deadly tsunami struck the islands, destroying the old facility and killing nearly 200 people in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.

Fortunately, last year’s tsunami in Hawaii was not nearly as bad as it could have been. However, last year’s event was also a sober reminder of the power of nature to destroy. Many people are probably unaware that earthquakes and volcanoes are not the most deadly natural disasters in Hawaii…tsunamis have been much more deadly events. Tsunamis are constant threat to all our Pacific Islands. In fact, barely 3 years ago, the National Park of American Samoa was devastated by a tsunami that destroyed park resources and killed many people in the Territory and in other island nations.

As beautiful as our Pacific Islands are, they will always be vulnerable to such acts of nature. It is up to all of us to be prepared.

For information on how YOU can prepare for natural disasters, visit

One of the more than 100,000 seabirds on Midway Atoll that died as a result of last year's tsunami. (NOAA Photo)

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