Hawaii residents might have trouble remembering the last time a tsunami devastated the islands, but a look at the history books shows Hawaii has indeed been hit by its share of destructive waves.

The earliest on record was reported in 1813 or 1814 — and the worst occurred in 1946, killing 173 people.

That’s a lot different from the surge that failed to materialize during a tsunami event last year. A warning on February 27, 2010 led Hawaii officials to clear Waikiki of sunbathers and swimmers.

UPDATE: Officials evacuated Waikiki again on October 27, 2012, after a 7.7-magnitude earthquake off the coast of British Columbia generated a tsunami that officials decided was headed straight for the islands. The first waves hit right about 10:30 p.m., but instead of predicted 7-foot waves, none were higher than about 2.5 feet.

And as it turns out, Hawaii has indeed experienced many regional warnings — including one in 1994 — that passed with no tsunami impact at all, Brian R. Shiro, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center told the New York Times last year.

But tsunamis have also caused major damage and some loss of life in Hawaii, most recently in 1975, when two people were killed, Shiro said.

The Most Devastating Tsunami of All

The most destructive tsunami in Hawaii occurred on April 1, 1946 after an earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter Scale struck the ocean floor off the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Waves reportedly traveled across the ocean at 500 miles an hour and measured 55 feet high, crest to trough, according to the USGS.

In Hilo, the death toll was high: 173 were killed, 163 injured, 488 buildings were demolished and 936 more were damaged. Damage at the time was estimated to be $25 million.

Witnesses told of waves inundating streets, homes, and storefronts. Many victims were swept out to sea by receding water.

The University of Hawaii’s Center For Oral History recorded chilling accounts from survivors of the 1946 wave:

“I looked out here and saw this great big black wall coming in like this . . . The noise was terrific, the rolling . . . And then you heard the screaming. You look and people were stomping, trying to reach earth, trying to get out. Dogs swimming around. Then came the crash . . . Well, it hit buildings, the lighthouse, and the railroad track, and everything . . . And I said, ‘Oh, that’s good-bye to Hilo.’ ” —Kapua Heuer

The waves caused a lot of damage to Maui, too. From Honokohau in the west to Hana in the east, 14 people were killed and another 550 homeless. Waves demolished 77 homes and other buildings.

The high death toll after the 1946 tsunami prompted the founding of the Tsunami Warning System to prevent Hawaii and the countries bordering the Pacific from being caught off guard ever again, according to the USGS

Historical Records List At Least 85 Tsunamis

The earliest tsunami on record in Hawaii was reported in 1813 or 1814, according to the Catalogue of Tsunamis in the Hawaiian Islands by George Pararas-Carayannis. At least 85 tsunamis have hit the islands since then, including 15 that caused significant damage. Only four originated near Hawaii — most came from the northwest Pacific and near South American coasts.

Famously, 62 people in Hilo were killed in 1837, many lured out onto the exposed reef by the fish that had been stranded by receding waters. Most drowned as soon as the 20-foot waves hit.

Read our related coverage:

About the Author