Maui Tsunami 2011: Numbers, Pictures & Stories

Photo by Peter Liu

March 10 started—and nearly ended—like any other day in Hawaii. It was already dark and many had gone home for the evening when the word came in: a massive earthquake had rocked the ocean floor off the coast of Japan and sent a tsunami cascading across the country’s northeastern region. And, officials cautioned, the rest of the Pacific was at risk.

We’d been through this before, most recently last February when an 8.8 temblor shook Chile and triggered a tsunami warning for Hawaii. That threat didn’t materialize, but it was a good wake-up call.

And so—even as heartbreaking images of destruction flashed across TV screens and social media sites lit up with the latest reports of devastation—Maui and the rest of the state waited. In the wee hours of the morning, just after 3am, it arrived. Not the wall of water that wreaked havoc in Japan, but enough to breach seawalls, smash harbors and flood homes. Fortunately evacuation procedures were followed, and no deaths or serious injuries were reported. We were left with, as Maui County Communications Director Rod Antone told a national news reporter, “a mess, not a disaster.”

The people of Japan weren’t so lucky, and their nightmare is far from over. We offer our condolences and support, and encourage you to give to the relief effort if you can. Meanwhile, here’s a look at the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami on Maui—a day we’ll all remember, but thankfully one we’ll be able to move beyond.



Joe Imhoff was supposed to be packing for a trip to the Mainland and boarding a flight. Instead, he found himself driving from Olinda to Lahaina with a friend to save a sailboat from possible destruction.

Imhoff says he passed the lines of cars waiting for gas and the clogged grocery store parking lots and heard the wail of the sirens, but still wasn’t convinced a tsunami was actually coming. “I’ll admit I might have been a little lackadaisical,” he says. “I remembered last time, and how we’d taken the boat out and nothing happened.”

Yet he went to the harbor anyway, and headed out aboard the craft at around 2:30am. “We were some of the last people to leave,” remembers Imhoff. He says he tuned into the marine radio but was “blown away” by the lack of information or updates.

So, as he and his friend bobbed in the water and waited, he turned to Twitter and Facebook. Once word came in that the wave had come and gone, Imhoff says they headed back in. “I knew from my iPhone the [tsunami] had hit, but I still wasn’t expecting it to be that bad,” he says. “But as we got close I noticed that the buoy lights were in an odd position—and then we got a whiff of the smell, like really foul sewage.”

Imhoff says the harbor was a mess. “Everything that could float was floating—debris, wood, coolers,” he recalls. “The boats that stayed in the harbor got trashed.” A crowd of tourists had gathered to watch the show, and Imhoff says that after he and his friend caught a ride in with a dinghy—the surges and shallowness prevented them from docking the sailboat—the curious onlookers helped pull him back onto dry land.

“Mostly I feel sorry for the people who lost their boats,” says Imhoff. “It’d be nice if they had some way of helping people who can’t get them out or who aren’t on-island.”

In South Maui, Kihei resident Myron Higashi was more concerned about sewage overflow. “Between Times Supermarket and Foodland, get sewage water running all down the road, into the drainage ditch and out into the ocean,” describes Higashi, who contacted MauiTime the day after the tsunami. “People stay walking all around the puddles of sewage. It’s unhealthy.”

And, Higashi adds, it’s not just public health that’s at risk. “Over by St. Theresa’s Church is some of the best ogo [seaweed] grounds on Maui. It going take months for it to recover, with all the pollution. They could have prevented this, but kind of too late now.”

Kahului resident Louise Ruiz was eight years old in 1946, when her neighborhood was hit by a tsunami. “All the houses down the street went,” she remembers. “Had plenty old houses at the time, kind of Army houses, kind of a wood you could poke though like that. When we had the tidal wave, we looked out and had all the houses floating on the water. When they came to tell us what was going on, we didn’t even know nothing until we saw the houses floating on the water like that. So we don’t think nothing, we just go.”

Ruiz’s Paukukalo home—the only one she’s ever lived in—was spared in ’46 and again last week. “Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s Jesus,” she says. “We’re church people and pray a lot, maybe that’s one of the reasons.”

Having lived through multiple close calls, Ruiz says she’s grateful for improved alert systems, which this time allowed her to evacuate early and go to a friend’s house in Happy Valley. “Before, they didn’t give you the kind of warning like they give you now,” she says. “Before, you never knew until someone came tell you. Now days you know because people put it on the news, stuff like that. Sometimes, people grumble. They say they’re telling us too early or something. I don’t know why people grumble. If they tell you early, don’t  grumble, just do what they tell you to do.”

Click here to see a video of another Kahului resident whose home was flooded by more than a foot of mud, water and debris.


When did you first hear about the events in Japan and the threat to Hawaii? And, once you heard, how did you follow the latest developments? If your answer is anything other than Twitter, Facebook or another social media outlet, chances are you weren’t getting the most current information.

As the tsunami hit Hawaii under cover of darkness and news agencies scrambled to stay current, social media was once again at the forefront, churning out thousands of updates from official sources and eyewitness accounts via the hash tag #HITsunami to paint a picture of a fast-moving event.

Photo by Sean Michael Hower

TV news broadcasts at both the local and national level frequently supplemented their coverage with tweets from the public or interviews with people whose names they’d found on Twitter, while Maui County relied heavily on its Facebook page to push out warnings and notifications.

Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Previous events—from natural disasters to political uprisings—have revealed the unparalleled ability of social media to quickly and effectively relay information in real time. Sure, it’s important to sift reliable news from wild speculation, but overall the #HITsunami stream was a consistent and dependable source that spread and increased awareness and quite possibly saved property and even lives.

As ever, the MauiTime crew did its best to stay on the cusp via these new media platforms, with Twitter and blog posts and live streaming video of the tsunami’s aftermath. We encourage you to follow us (@mauitime, @tommyrusso, @jenrusso, @jacobshafer and @anuheayagi), read this blog, engage us and help us keep you informed in times of turmoil and uncertainty.


Through Friday, March 18, the County is asking anyone who experienced property damage during the tsunami to report it to the Civil Defense Agency. Reporting damage doesn’t guarantee assistance, but it will help determine if Maui qualifies for federal aid and, the County says, could lead to changes to flood zone and evacuation maps.

“As anyone can see by what is happening in Japan, we can no longer leave anything to chance,” says Mayor Arakawa. “So please fill out these forms as soon as possible.”

To fill out the damage assessment survey or to get more information, visit

Photo by John Orsbun



Magnitude of the March 10 earthquake that devastated Japan and triggered the Pacific tsunami


Number of earthquakes since 1900 that were larger

6-7 feet

Height of surges detected at Kahului Harbor

11-12 feet

Height of surges detected at Napo‘opo‘o on the Big Island

$3 million

Initial estimate of the statewide damage; the figure has since been revised to “tens of millions”


Number of deaths known to have been caused in Hawaii by the tsunami

Sources: U.S. Geological Survey, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, Office of the Governor