By NED ROZELL
May 13, 2009
tsunami wave that hit Hilo, Hawaii, on April 1, 1946.
Photo by Rod Mason, courtesy of the Pacific Tsunami Museum.
"I called my grandmother and said, 'There's water in the backyard,'" Johnston said. "She said, 'Don't worry about it -it's probably just high seas.' I said, 'I think you should come look.' As soon as she looked out the window, she started screaming and ran for my grandfather."
Johnston's grandmother stayed with her grandfather, who didn't want to leave his house despite the insistence of Johnston's uncle, Rod Mason, who seemed to know a larger wave was on its way. A neighbor that Johnston called "Uncle Eddie" took charge and gathered together people who would listen to him.
"Eddie had a machete with him, and obviously had a plan," Johnston said.
Eddie knew the best path to safety was to get to higher ground before another wave came in. He guided a group of children - some, like Johnston, still barefoot - into the subtropical forest behind the houses, chopping a path through vines and trees with another man.
"They kept telling us to run," Johnston said.
She remembers cutting her feet on sharp lava rocks. The images of water percolating through those rocks and floating, thorny lauhala leaves would appear for years in her dreams.
Eddie and other adults delivered the children to a radio tower and higher ground, where the kids played. When the tsunami had dissipated, the adults gathered up Johnston and the other children and brought them back to the place where they gathered before they went into the jungle.
"(The adults) told us not to go out to the street, but it looked very interesting so I went out there anyway," Johnston said. "I saw a house that was sitting on a bunch of cushions from chairs, then I found out why they didn't want us to go - I saw someone's arm sticking out from underneath a house."
Ninety-six people died in Hilo on that April Fool's Day 63 years ago, and 159 died in the entire territory of Hawaii. And, though Johnston's family all survived, the tsunami affected her in profound ways.
"I've realized over the last 20 years that it had a tremendous impact on me emotionally and physiologically," Johnston said. "I never really was in touch with it until I started doing tsunami survivor interviews myself."
University of Hawaii professor Walter Dudley interviewed Johnston in the early 1990s about her experience. Not long after Dudley interviewed her, Johnston stopped having the dream of swimming amid spiky lauhala leaves. She found the storytelling experience so profound that she helped found the Pacific Tsunami Museum and now devotes a good deal of her time to traveling and interviewing tsunami survivors.
"I found that people are captivated by stories, but not very interested in mitigation info," she said. "If you get them interested in stories you can teach them what to do and how these people were saved. There are always lessons in these stories."
Johnston will be in Alaska to interview survivors on video in early June, visiting Anchorage, Cordova, Seward, Whittier and Valdez, and will also travel to Kodiak in September. Survivors of the waves generated by the 1964 earthquake who would like to contact Johnston can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.
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