Kamchatka, Russia, frequently experiences subduction earthquakes of the most powerful kind. This one had a magnitude of 9.0 and it caused tsunamis that reached and damaged Hawaii and locations on the west coasts of North and South America.
An earthquake of magnitude 9.0 hit the coast of Kamchatka along a 350-mile subduction zone fracture, on November 4, 1952. The epicenter was twenty-five miles beneath sea level. Within fifteen minutes of seismic recognition of the earthquake, the Tsunami Warning System (TWS) that had been set up four years earlier in Hawaii began to follow the path of the expected tsunami.
Years of experience told authorities that an earthquake of magnitude 9 or even magnitude 7 in Kamchatka would give rise to destructive tsunamis. TWS had been set up after the devastation inflicted on Hawaii from the Alaska tsunamis that were triggered by the Unimak Earthquake of 1946. It was estimated that the first tsunami waves from Kamchatka’s 1952 event would arrive about seven hours after the quake and they did arrive with very destructive force.
The warnings that were periodically issued served to alert people to the dangers. The waves beached boats, caused houses to collide, destroyed piers, scoured beaches, and broke up road pavements. A farmer on Oahu reported that six of his cows were killed. In Honolulu harbor, waves tore a cement barge from its moorings and hurled it against the freighter Hawaiian Packer. At Pearl Harbor, Oahu, the tsunami was evidenced by the periodic rise and fall of the water, but no damage was done.
A boathouse worth $13,000 was demolished in Hilo where the highest wave levels were seen, twelve feet above normal sea level. Property damage from these waves amounted to one million dollars. Fortunately, no lives were lost but it seems that TWS failed to alert people to the nature of tsunami waves, especially their number. In Honolulu sightseers ran toward the beach at the second wave instead of running away from it, apparently unaware of the great potential danger from subsequent waves.
At the source of the 1952 earthquake severe damage was caused to Kamchatka Peninsula with waves reaching heights of from 50 to one hundred feet. A settlement on the Kuril Islands just south of the epicenter experienced tsunami waves sixty-five feet above sea level. The settlement was completely destroyed. The height of the waves and amount of destruction in Alaska were surprisingly, small. However, on Midway Island, as the tsunami moved toward the Hawaiian chain, six-foot and nine-foot waves flooded the island, lifted buildings, washed debris and barges ashore, and deposited quantities of sand on an airfield.
Tidal gauges all along the west coast of the United States registered higher water levels, all of them five inches or less in height. The west coast of South America experienced much higher water levels than on the west coast of the United States and was damaged significantly. In Peru, several houses were flooded.