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Snapshots in Time: The April Fool’s Tsunami of 1946

 Sally Budge

An old black and white photo shows four sisters wearing habits speaking a child and a woman. A mess of tsunami rubble extends to the horizon.

After surviving World War II and the struggles and hardships that came with living in a place that had an active role in the Pacific Theater, as well as being firsthand witnesses of the tragedy of Pearl Harbor, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Hawaii then became eyewitnesses to another tragedy. On April 1, 1946, a deadly tsunami hit the Hawaiian Islands, caused by an 8.6 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Alaska, 2,400 miles away.

An old black and white photograph depicts a one story structure in the background, surrounded by water, mud and debris. A powerline sags dangerously low.

Because of the initial destruction of the earthquake and tsunami around the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, no warning was transmitted, and Hawaii was caught unawares. The 60-foot high waves of the tsunami hit just as Islanders were headed off to work and school. It has been estimated that 173 people died—many were swept out to sea—and around 600 buildings were destroyed.

A blurry black and white photo depicts a one-story structure that has been shifted and crushed. A line of people are walking around the backside of the building. Detritus is scattered in the foreground.

These pictures, found in the scrapbooks of the sisters in Hawaii at the time, illustrate the destruction that they witnessed. The scrapbooks are part of a collection of records from the former Hawaii Vice-Province which can now be found in the Carondelet Consolidated Archives in St. Louis.

A black and white photo of flattened structures. Boards and collapsed roofs are scattered among palm trees.

An interesting side note: as a result of what has become known as the April Fool’s Day Tsunami and the destruction it left in its wake, the United States established a method to detect and predict deadly waves caused by seismic activity. This is now known as the Pacific Tsunami Warning System, which has been in operation since 1949.

Black and white photo of a man in a white shirt and black pants standing on the flat roof of a collapsed building. Tree roots, sticks and mud are in the foreground. Mountains are visible on the horizon.

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Category: Stories

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The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet are a congregation of Catholic sisters. We, and those who share our charism and mission, are motivated in all things by our profound love of God and our dear neighbors. We seek to build communities and bridge divides between people. Since our first sisters gathered in 1650, our members have been called to “do all things of which women are capable.” The first sisters of our congregation arrived in St. Louis, Missouri in 1836, and we now have additional locations in St. Paul, Albany, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Japan and Peru. Today, we commit to respond boldly to injustice and dare to be prophetic.


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