Other Hawaii Dangers
Millions of people each year vis the Hawaiian Islands. I wish all of them could read this list of cautions because it would save them some trouble, sometimes without putting out much effort at all.
Surely Hawaii is different from where you grew up, wherever that was. The ocean and other weather events can be dangerous at times. An atmosphere of free-for-all fun might exist during your first couple trips to Hawaii – or first few months living here and you might not be fully aware of lurking danger.
The following is in addition to three other posts about Hawaii Danger you can find here:
Some Water Cautions
One of Hawaii’s major attractions that really appeals to a lot of people are the many streams, waterfalls, and cool pools of water formed by water coming off the mountains.
Flash flooding potentially occurs during all months, but is highest in the rainy season months of October through March. In the period of time between 1960 and 2005 there were 414 flash flood events that occurred in the islands. In those 45 years only two flash floods occurred in June, whereas sixty-five floods occurred in November. Forty-six people lost their lives in flash floods during this time. (Source – National Weather Service, Pacific Region Headquarters)
Over the last 45 years, ninety-two people have lost their lives due to big waves in the Hawaiian Islands. At times when all conditions combine to create the perfect storm off-shore, there are sixty foot waves on the North Shore of Oahu. On Maui at the Pe’ahi (Jaws) break waves are rumored to approach 120 feet high. Personally, I’ve been there during 50-60 footers and it was spectacular. At Waimea break on Oahu I’ve also seen 50-60 foot breaking waves. It’s spectacular. I couldn’t imagine paddling a surfboard out in that! I almost died in much smaller surf – My Two Near-Death Bodyboarding Experiences.
Big waves overturn boats, they drown surfers and fishermen. In the 1970’s there was a high number of surfing fatalities probably due to there being little enforcement about going out in high surf. Today the rules are strict, and yet pros are still giving it a try in very big surf.
Something to keep in mind as you consider whether or not to head out into the surf to swim is whether or not you could handle it if the surf suddenly grew by another 6 feet. Only go out into Hawaii’s strong surf (over 2 feet high) if you are an excellent swimmer. Also, you should probably have a bodyboard or surfboard with you in case you need to hold onto it for flotation. I usually sit and watch the surf for a half-hour before I go in. I want to see whether the sets are coming in fast, regularly, in very brief breaks, or if they’re growing.
As a part of being careful about going into or being around high surf, you should also know about so-called rogue waves. These are large ‘one-off’ waves that occur individually or in a set of waves that are significantly bigger than the prevailing conditions. They happen infrequently, but often enough that all local Hawaiians know not to keep their back to the sea for too long if working or playing in or near it.
One natural weather phenomenon that has the potential for absolutely devastating effects is a tsunami. Recently Thailand and much of Southeast Asia experienced a devastating tsunami caused by an underwater earthquake in Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands of people died in that event, and it gave us all something to think about. I had left Patong Beach, Thailand, one of the hardest hit areas, just two days before the tsunami struck. Having lived in Hawaii for years I knew what receding waters meant. Who knows, maybe I could have warned a lot of people to get to higher ground if I was still there.
If you live in Hawaii you will see tsunami cautions mentioned frequently in the newspapers, and on television. When the water recedes far past what it typically does, and you see fish, octopus, or other sea life stuck in the sand wondering what happened, you’ll know that a tsunami is about to take place. Get to as high a place as you possibly can. If there is nothing near you, climb a strong coconut tree! Sure it’s difficult, but not more difficult than it would be trying to stay alive in the turbulent waters as a tsunami rushes in.
A tsunami could wreak havoc on Honolulu – which remains, largely – at a meter or so above sea level.
On average a tsunami hits the Hawaiian Islands about once each year. There is not necessarily damage wrought with each tsunami, it could amount to little more than a ripple. Damaging tsunamis hit about once every seven years.
Tsunamis almost always occur after an earthquake near the ocean – or actually under the ocean.
The worst tsunami in recent times occurred in 1946, April Fool’s Day, when a large tsunami hit Hawaii and killed nearly 160 people. There was no warning system in place, and many died exploring the sea life flopping around on the beach after the water pulled away from the beach.
How high was the tsunami surge? On the Big Island it hit 55 feet high. Some of the waves (surges) made it over a half-mile inland from where it initially hit.
Tsunamis travel across the open ocean at 400-500 miles per hour, though they slow down a lot by the time they reach the shallows bordering the beaches.
The biggest wave of a tsunami?
It’s never the same numbered wave, but it’s somewhere in the middle of the set of waves. So, knowing that, if you see the first wave come in – and it hits the parking area where your car is – get out fast because the next one, or the next one after the next one – could be 55 feet high.
Get to higher ground immediately.
Many people surviving the Boxing Day Tsunami in Southeast Asia survived by climbing up higher than the second story of sturdy (concrete) hotels on the beach. They were able to watch the devastation with front row seats. There is no telling how big the waves will get – so, over two stories of climbing may not be enough. If you can, go higher.
Don’t forget – once the waves come in, they have to go back out… when they do – a whole lot more destruction takes place as the wave carries wood, trees, boats, cars, people, and everything lighter than the rushing water itself. Even though the water may seem shallow – one to two feet high once the waves come in, DO NOT get in it, because the rip currents will be incredibly strong and might sweep you off your feet and to your death.
Yes, it’s that serious.
Blowholes are some of the coolest natural phenomena to experience, and yet they can be deadly. A blowhole is a hole in the cliff face near the ocean that sprays water when waves come in and go under the lava cliffs and up and out the hole in front of onlookers. They are great fun, but also can be quite dangerous. The force of the water coming through the hole can pick you up and drop you head first down the hole – where you drown. This has happened numerous times in the past. Some blowholes are closed for this reason.
Though picturesque, swimming at secluded beaches where you are the only one in the water is not a good idea for a couple of reasons.
The best reason for swimming where there are lifeguards is the rip current that is sometimes present. Many people have died in Hawaii after being sucked out away from the beach in a rip current that exhausted them as they tried to swim against it or tread water until help arrived.
What to do if you’re caught in a rip current that is pulling you away from the beach and you’re helpless to swim back to the beach where you want to be?
Don’t fight it directly – it’s a losing battle. The strongest swimmers in the world cannot fight the strength of a powerful rip current.
You can start by swimming parallel to the beach. This may take you out of the current, and then you can swim back to the beach.
Or, if that isn’t working, you can try just going with the current until it weakens and releases you so you can swim back to the beach.
Anyone can get caught in a rip current. I was caught in a very bad one at Sand Island one time as I bodyboarded with a friend. Good thing I had bodyboarding fins on and a board to float on. I had to use all my strength for twenty-five to fight the rip current and swim at an angle to the beach. I was completely exhausted and had to sit on the beach for an hour to regain enough strength to stand up!
Shore Breaking Waves
A special mention goes to Sandy Beach because the place is treacherous for those playing in the surf. There are more broken, strained, and sprained necks, knees, elbows, and ankles at this beach than at any of the other beaches.
The culprit is the wicked shore-break. This is where the waves break right at the beach – and into the hard packed sand. Every time there are waves at Sandy’s you’ll find people in the dangerous surf. Stay all day and you’ll probably see someone hurt by it.
I’ve been thrown into the sand very hard at Sandy’s and I just don’t even enjoy the place anymore. Couple that with the strong localism of the teenage crowd – and it’s just not a fun place for too many people but the teens themselves!
Not just locals, but primarily the locals, can be unwelcoming to put it mildly. If you don’t understand the common courtesy that takes place as you vie for position to catch a wave – you are best to learn it before putting your board or “okole” in the water.
Local surfers will let you know when you’re not playing by the accepted rules. Sometimes there are no rules and the locals will gripe no matter what you do – just because you’re there at their spot – and in the way.
Up to you how you handle that, I’ve fought for a spot on a couple of occasions, because I’m equally as passionate about catching waves as they are! Other times, I’m way outnumbered and take my board and go to a less crowded spot.
Once I had a teenage duck his surfboard down in front of me – and it popped up and hit me as I rode my bodyboard down a wave. The next time he caught a wave I grabbed his board and threw him off it. It shouldn’t get to this point – but it sometimes does. In a perfect world these situations don’t exist… Hawaii is NOT a perfect place; so take off your rose-colored glasses before you arrive!
In recent memory, and since Hawaii became one of the United States, there were a couple of hurricanes that tore through Hawaii. There was a lot of devastation and some people even died as a result. The first hurricane was Hurricane Iwa on November 23, 1982 that hit Oahu, Kauai, and Ni’ihau. This was not a major hurricane, it ranked only as a Category 1.
The next hurricane, Iniki, was a more powerful Category 4 storm, and hit Kauai on September 11, 1992. Fortunately, hurricane Iniki caused only six deaths but it was responsible for nearly $2 billion dollars in damage to the island.
In addition to the strong winds – the storm surge caused significant flooding.
Hiking Ridge Trails
There are some amazing hikes on the islands that result in being at the peak of a very high ridge. On Oahu the Ku’ulao mountain ridge is the summit of many hiking trails – and well worth the hike to reach it.
The ridges of Hawaii mountains are steep, treacherous, with loose lava, dirt, and plants that hide holes and steep drops. This is the norm.
Do not go off the trail, you might regret it!
Rocks falling off high mountains can happen at any time. I remember hearing about some that fell and ripped right through a home that was not far from where I was staying!
There was once a wonderful hike on Oahu, Sacred Falls, that was very popular with locals and tourists alike. Over 50,000 people visited the attraction each year. It was a beautiful walk down a forest trail under overhanging limbs and vines… and the reward was a cool (and I mean cool as in frigid!) dip in the pool of water at the base of the waterfall. It was one of my favorite places to visit and I had been there almost a dozen times over the years. In 1999, on Mother’s Day, there was a rockslide and eight people at the falls lost their lives. Another group of fifty was injured, some severely.
We won’t cover volcano dangers here, except to say that you need to follow the cautions laid out by your guide, signs, and other officials that explain what proper and safe behavior is as you walk around active parts of a volcano. Personally I don’t know how close I’m ever going to get to a volcano! Seems like a big chance to actually build a home on one like they’re doing on Big Island!
Hawaii does have earthquakes, but most are not noticeable. There are thousands per year on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The most destructive earthquake in Hawaii occurred in 1868 with a magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter scale. It killed eighty-one people.
Getting cancer from the sun is a big risk because the sun is closer to you than in other parts of the world, and because it is so warm and so few clothes are worn. Use a 30+ or 50+ rated sun block if you’ll be in the sun for more than an hour. For children – it’s more important to lather them up with sun block or keep them out of the sun for extended periods. If I could change one habit that I used to have up through my thirties, it would be going into the sun all day without sunblock. Doesn’t seem too smart in hindsight!
There are other things to be aware of in Hawaii, but they are not as dangerous as the things I’ve mentioned in these four articles. I’m sure I missed something though! If you think of anything that I should have covered that I didn’t, feel free to email me and let me know. I’d love to add some more!