10 years later: Recalling the 2011 tsunami

  • File photo Japanese visitors holed up at PKP around 1 a.m. on March 11, 2011. No one in this group seemed interested in bedding down on the floor, or availing themselves of some of the benches and tables that were laid out elsewhere in the corridors.

  • File photo Visitors from Hilo-area hotels make themselves as comfortable as possible as they bed down for the night in a temporary shelter at the Prince Kuhio Plaza as a precaution for the March 11, 2011, tsunami.

  • Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona sustained major damage and was strewn with debris in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, tsunami. In this file photo, Civil Defense workers assess the situation while a curious visitor manages to cross police lines undetected.

A decade ago Wednesday evening, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake rocked Japan.

The temblor generated a devastating tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people, displaced a half-million and caused an estimated $220 billion in damage — making it the most expensive natural disaster in history.


The Pacificwide tsunami generated by the quake also caused appreciable damage in Hawaii, especially on the Kona side of Hawaii Island.

Big Islanders started making their preparations after the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a statewide tsunami warning at 8:15 p.m. March 10, with the first tsunami waves forecast to hit Hawaii at 2:59 a.m. March 11.

Since-retired county Civil Defense Administrator Quince Mento credited a previous “countywide, full-on tsunami evacuation drill” directed by the late Mayor Billy Kenoi for an orderly response by emergency responders and personnel in the county’s the Emergency Operations Center.

“Everyone’s head was in gear and there wasn’t a lot of stress from the players,” Mento said Thursday. “Everyone was focused on what they had to do.

“It was a matter of waiting and seeing what was going to actually happen.”

Mento ordered county parks to be lighted, in case residents who evacuated tsunami inundation zones decided to congregate in the parks. Hilo International Airport was immediately closed, and the first of several hourly coastline evacuation siren alerts was sounded by Hawaii County Civil Defense just before 10 p.m.

Cars lined up at gas stations statewide as people filled their tanks, and coastal residents packed their families, pets and emergency supplies into their vehicles and headed for higher ground.

Automobile dealerships near the coast moved their inventory inland, and downtown Hilo businesses boarded up and sandbagged entrances.

Shortly before midnight, the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel evacuated its roughly 600 guests to Prince Kuhio Plaza, with the small staff providing evacuees with pillows, food and “lots” of emotional support, according to Denise Schonfield, a hotel guest from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

“They just took care of everybody,” Schonfield said at the time. “It was exceptional.”

“We prayed a lot,” said Daryle Kitamori, Hilo Hawaiian Hotel general manager, at the time, and added that the Banyan Drive hotel sustained no damage.

At 12:30 a.m. March 11, then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie said “residents should take this tsunami warning seriously” and advised the public to “be sensible and act with aloha.”

The first tsunami waves, about 3-feet in height, hit Kauai at about 3 a.m. and started sweeping down the island chain. Waves of 6-7 feet hit Maui an hour-and-a-half later.

At 5 a.m. the worst of the waves reached the Big Island. Hilo — which was hit hard by tsunami waves on April 1, 1946, and May 23, 1960 — survived the threat with minimal, if any, damage.

The story was different in Kailua-Kona, however, where the waves caused millions of dollars in damage.

Large surges covered Kailua Pier entirely, with two cars parked on the pier moved by the waves.

Alii Drive, the coastline street in Kailua-Kona’s main tourist area, was strewn with debris, damaging hotels, restaurants and stores.

Waves flooded King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach hotel — which has since undergone management and name changes — causing damage to the lobby, restaurant and kitchen. None of the rooms were damaged, however, and the hotel remained open despite initial reports to the contrary.

Eateries that sustained damage include the since-closed Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and the Kona Inn restaurant.

Mento told the County Council later that two homes in Kona were destroyed and 11 were significantly damaged. In addition, 51 businesses were damaged, including several hotels, and 25 apartment or condominium complexes.

Along Kealakekua Bay, one home dislodged from its foundation and was swept into the sea, and six others also were destroyed. In addition, five cars were overturned, with one being washed into the bay.

Two upscale resorts were significantly damaged, requiring closure.

The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai was closed until April 30, 2011, after water, sand and other debris caused damage to a pool, landscaping and a restaurant, as well as 12 of the hotel’s 243 guest rooms.

Then-general manager Robert Whitfield said the resort sustained “no significant structural damage,” and the closure was so resort personnel could “polish the property in the fashion it is known for.”

Harder hit was the neighboring Kona Village Resort.

The unique property, which had served as a getaway for the rich and famous since it opened in 1965, suffered significant damage to its infrastructure — including water and sewer pipes and outdated electrical conduits.

Sixteen of the hotel’s 125 thatched-roof bungalows, known as “hales,” were destroyed, with another 40 damaged. The resort’s main office and activity center also were significantly damaged.

Damage to Kona Village, which remains shuttered, was estimated at $30 million to $50 million. In addition, about 250 employees were laid off.

Rosewood Hotels &Resorts plans a 2023 reopening of the iconic 81-acre property. Planned are 150 guest hales and numerous amenities, including a restoration of the original resort’s Shipwreck Bar and Talk Story Bar, according to the company website.

Abercrombie declared the state a disaster area, and Kenoi did an aerial assessment of the damage from South Kohala to Napoopoo village in South Kona afterward.


“We’ve been very fortunate and blessed that we did not lose a single life,” Kenoi told an emergency briefing of the County Council.

Email John Burnett at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email