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Volcano Watch — Kamehameha V comes to the rescue in 1868

October 16, 2003

We're accustomed to seeing news stories about natural disasters around the world where either national or international aid agencies come to the rescue to aid victims. In Hawai'i, the County Civil Defense and Red Cross Agencies are activated in these situations.

If damage is severe, the governor will request that the President declare the affected region a disaster area to involve federal agencies such as FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).

What about natural disasters in old Hawai'i under the monarchy? We can get a glimpse of one example through the eyes of Charles de Varigny, minister of Finance under King Kamehameha V (Lot). Kamehameha V reigned from 1864 to his death in 1872 and was, in Mark Twain's words, "popular, greatly respected, and even beloved" by the Hawaiians.

First alerted to the possibility of a Mauna Loa eruption on 27 March, 1868 by the harbormaster in Kawaihae, the Hawaiian government awaited further developments before deciding on a course of action. Reports of ominous draining of the lava lake at Kīlauea and an increasing number of felt earthquakes in Kona and Ka'u were filtering back to Honolulu. On April 2, an earthquake occurred that was so large, it was felt in Honolulu (nearly magnitude 8 by today's standards). On the same day, the sky darkened, the sun turned red, and a fine dust filled the atmosphere in Honolulu warning the government that they were now dealing with a severe eruption of Mauna Loa.

That was enough for the cabinet who chartered a steamer for government officials to assess the damages and also to transport food and supplies for the victims to Hawai'i Island. The steamer Kīlauea departed Honolulu on 8 April with both the King and the minister of Finance on board. De Varigny's account describes the steamer leaving at 5 pm and immediately "plunging into a cloud of cinders" so that they "promptly lost sight of the island of Oahu."

They arrived in Hilo on the afternoon of April 10th. Upon disembarking, they found that the large earthquakes had demolished stone buildings in Hilo. Wells and rivers had dried up. During this stopover, the relief party heard of the estimated 31 dead due to a mudslide in Wood Valley coincident with the earthquake as well as the considerable damage in Ka'u district from both the earthquake and the associated tsunami. What the earthquake did not destroy along the coast, the tsunami dragged into the ocean.

The King himself took depositions on extent of losses and post-disaster needs from each head of household in Hilo. His Excellency's extensive land holdings in Puna were parceled into single family units, and some were awarded to the most hard-hit victims.

The Hilo work was completed and the steamer set sail for the Ka'u coastline the next evening, arriving at Keauhou the following morning. No one, including a pilot onboard who grew up in Keauhou, recognized the coastline there because the earthquakes and tsunami had caused the collapse of the rocky coast. When the relief party landed, they found nearly 200 survivors with only the clothes on their backs. Their village, canoes, everything had been completely destroyed. The King again heard the people's requests and distributed aid, again making available his personal resources in Puna.

The King and his officials found the same situation at Punalu`u and Wai`ohinu. At Wai`ohinu, the Finance Minister, de Varigny, got lava fever and decided that he had to see a lava flow from Mauna Loa (begun 7 April) just a few hours from Wai`ohinu. The flow was still very hot and the party had a difficult time crossing a few of the smaller channels.

De Varigny met up with the ship at Ka`alu`alu that evening, just before it departed for Kona and back to Honolulu. In this first aid trip, the relief party helped a total of 799 people: 110 in Hilo, 68 in Keauhou, 364 at Punalu`u and Wai`ohinu, and 257 at Ka`alu`alu. It is easy to see why King Kamehameha V was so beloved.

Volcano Activity Update

Eruptive activity at the Pu`u `O`o vent of Kīlauea Volcano continued unabated during the past week. Surface flows are mainly confined to the upper areas above Pulama pali with only a trickle visible in the Kohola segment of the Mother's Day flow. The east side of the Mother's Day flow and the coastal flats below Paliuli are devoid of any surface lava activity. No lava is entering the ocean.

Three earthquakes were reported felt in the week ending on October 16. Residents of Hilo and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park were awakened by a magnitude-3.8 earthquake at 3:23 a.m. on Friday, October 10. Two earthquakes were felt in the northern part of the island on Saturday, October 11. At 31 minutes after midnight, a resident of Waikoloa felt the earth move. The magnitude-2.6 temblor was located 12 km (7.2 mi) northeast of Waikoloa at a depth of 7 km (4.2 mi). A magnitude-2.2 earthquake at 4:21 a.m. was felt by a resident of Kohala Estates. The location of the tremor was 16 km (9.6 mi) southeast of Hawi at a depth of 21 km (12.6 mi).

Mauna Loa is not erupting. The summit region continues to inflate. Seismic activity remains low, with two earthquakes located in the summit area during the last seven days. Visit our website ( for daily volcano updates and nearly real-time earthquake information.

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