Editor’s Note: Not My Father’s Tsunami

February, 2005

In 1946, my father, Kenneth Abe, was a kindergartener at Waiakea Elementary School on the Big Island. On April 1 of that year, an earthquake in the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska generated a tsunami that killed 159 people, including 122 on the Big Island, some of them teachers and children.

Since I’m writing this, you can tell my father survived. He was saved, along with other children, by a quick thinking bus driver, who recognized signs of the tidal wave, turned the school bus around and headed inland to higher ground. There were no cell phones in those days. My grandfather went to the morgue to look for my father’s body among those of the other children who were killed by the tsunami.

I remember hearing about this tsunami as a child and realizing the despair my Japanese grandfather must have felt, thinking he had lost his oldest child and only son. As an adult, you can sense the terror and loss behind the photos that document the tragedy. This is the closest personal reference I have to getting a grasp on what happened to scores more in and around the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004.

By now, the tsunami in South Asia is probably not as top-of-mind as it was immediately following the holidays. Still, it’s difficult to get your arms around numbers like more than 150,000 dead (easily 1,000-fold the number of the April 1, 1946 Hawaii tsunami) and the millions of people threatened by the resulting disease and unsanitary conditions.

It’s a natural disaster that leaves us aching over so much human loss and suffering, and feeling mighty vulnerable here in our tiny, isolated island state in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. However, we should be busy with both of our hands – one to help ease the suffering in South Asia, the other to do what we can to be prepared here.

You might start by figuring out whether or not you live or work in an inundation zone. Just pick up your phone book and take a look at the civil defense maps that are printed there year after year. Make sure your disaster survival kits are packed and ready. Again, you can find a list of items for that kit in your phone book. Then there are the basics: Does your family know what the plan is, how to communicate and where to go in case of a disaster? Is your business prepared with a disaster plan? The American Red Cross has software that can help with that.

The 1946 tsunami caused an estimated $26 million in damages. At the time of this writing, pledges of aid to victims of the 2004 tsunami were around $4 billion. What will it cost Hawaii when the next big one hits? We all need to keep that figure as low as humanly possible.

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Kelli Abe-Trifonovich