Hawaii’s Forgotten Native-Language Newspapers Are a Treasure Trove of Climate Data

Researchers translating the papers uncovered accounts of extreme weather that struck the islands in the past

Photo: gcosoveanu/Getty Images

There were once more than 100 native language newspapers in circulation in Hawaii that chronicled daily life on the islands. As early as 1834, the newspapers supplied native Hawaiians with news, current affairs, opinion, and, importantly, information about extreme weather events.

In 1871, an intense hurricane struck the islands of Hawaii and Maui, causing catastrophic damage. The newspapers reported on the destruction, traced the likely path of the storm, and documented the impact on Hawaiians.

“The streaming of the wind was similar to 5,000 steam whistles set off at one time,” reported the paper Ke Au Okoa. “The rain continued from morning til night. At 11 o’clock, the waters rushed swiftly and the lowlands were flooded, sweeping everything that was in their paths. The damages were great concerning the koa trees and the grapevines.”

An artist’s rendering of the destruction caused by the Hawaii hurricane of 1871. Photo: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society

In 1893, a group backed by U.S. troops illegally overthrew Hawaii’s monarchical government and, shortly after, passed a law mandating all schools teach their classes in English. The Hawaiian language fell into decline, and, as a result, the native-language newspapers faded first into obscurity, then completely ceased to exist. Records of the 1871 hurricane were consigned to dusty archives and its devastating impact on the islands all but forgotten by Hawaii’s residents.

But in the early ’90s, Puakea Nogelmeier, PhD, a professor of language at the University of Hawai‘i, discovered that the archipelago’s libraries and museums had hoarded its old newspapers. Realizing their historical and cultural value, he started the painstaking process of translating and digitizing each article.

“Nobody had ever really tapped into this repository,” he tells Future Human. “I realized what an incredible treasure trove it was. And we became aware of all this information that was available but that had been obscured.”

Though initially started as a humanities project, Nogelmeier uncovered detailed accounts of extreme weather that had struck the islands. The data enabled meteorologists to track Hawaii’s extreme weather past, which, in turn, led to critical legislation protecting Hawaiians from similar weather in the future.

Hurricanes in the region are expected to increase in intensity and frequency, due to a warming climate. But since 2000, some lawmakers have been trying to eliminate state-sponsored hurricane insurance because they did not see such events as a real threat.

The professor’s discovery of the newspaper accounts led these lawmakers to understand the need to maintain extreme weather insurance for islanders, and not a moment too late: Scientists have warned that miles of Hawaiian roads may be underwater in years to come, with one climatologist predicting “unprecedented climatic changes” for the state within the next decade. Already, local projects headed by native Hawaiians encourage planting of large trees and vegetation along the shorelines to protect oceanfront homes and livelihoods from sea level rise and extreme weather events.

More than 1 million pages of transcript text — the equivalent of 1 million A4 pages — are scattered across museums and libraries across Hawaii. Less than 2% of them have been translated. Nogelmeier, who landed in Hawaii by way of Minnesota in 1972, began translating all of it 25 years ago in an effort to preserve and cultivate the traditional language. Named Marvin at birth, he was gifted the name Puakea by a former hula teacher who shared the name.

“‘How did all of that disappear from consciousness?’ That’s what we wanted to answer,” he says. “It’s not about language, it’s about knowledge.”

By 2010, Nogelmeier was several years into his translation project and had noticed the wealth of weather data it had brought to light. He asked University of Hawai‘i meteorologist Steven Businger, PhD, to investigate whether the newspapers could be used to expand history records of geoscience events, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

“I remember he invited me to have lunch with him,” Businger recalls, “and I would be fascinated by all these things he was telling me about the Hawaiian language. And it felt natural to then work together.”

“I couldn’t believe there was so much information.”

Nogelmeier’s team collected more than 4,000 articles documenting extreme weather events, both geological and meteorological. He then uploaded them to a digital database run by the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, an oceanic, atmospheric, and geophysical research institute based in Hawaii.

“We were able to work [on] translations and the scientists could work out, ‘Well if this tree had blown over, that meant that the wind must have been this strong,’” Nogelmeier recalls. “It was really remarkable.”

The newspapers reported events like droughts, floods, high surf, and landslides. Taken together, the reporting showed evidence of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the climate phenomenon now known to occur in the tropical Pacific. “What surprised me the most,” Businger says, “is how many newspapers the Hawaiians had, how prolific they were in writing things down, and in detail, that we could actually work out the track of the hurricane and the intensity of it, based solely on those articles. I couldn’t believe there was so much information.”

In 2018, the pair co-authored a paper on their findings titled “Hurricane with a History: Hawaiian Newspapers Illuminate an 1871 Storm.”

For decades, residents of Maui and Hawaii islands had shrugged off the need for protection from the potential consequences of a hurricane, largely because nobody thought they needed it, Nogelmeier and Businger explained in their paper. Before Iniki hit in 1992, it had been over a century since a major hurricane had struck Maui and Hawaii — and even Iniki caused relatively little damage compared to the havoc it wrought on the archipelago’s other islands. An English-language record of the damage from the 1871 hurricane was almost nonexistent. The government — and Hawaii residents — assumed the islands were immune.

As no one living on the islands of Maui and Hawaii witnessed the destruction of the 1871 event, a “number of myths” had arisen among locals, the paper notes. People said things such as: “‘The volcanoes protect us,’ ‘only Kauai gets hit,’ or ‘there is no Hawaiian word for hurricane.’”

Starting in 2000, Democratic State Senator Bob Herkes repeatedly introduced legislation to eliminate hurricane insurance and reduce building code requirements from Hawaii island. Alongside Herkes, Representative David Morihara submitted legislation to base all natural hazard risk analyses in the state on data from 1881 and later. This would exclude not only the 1871 hurricane, but the 1880 Maunaloa lava flow and the Wood Valley earthquake in 1868. The insurance industry regularly lobbies government officials when it comes to insurance policies; if hurricane insurance were to be required, insurance companies would be left with a hefty bill to foot if a hurricane struck.

Hurricane insurance in Hawaii is not mandatory. It’s a supplemental bolt-on to standard home insurance, though banks require homeowners to have hurricane insurance before they can get mortgage approval. If the proposed legislation to scrap hurricane insurance requirements had gone ahead, buildings would not be required to be hurricane-proofed, sending the message to Hawaii residents that they didn’t need to hurricane-insure their properties. That would mean that homeowners themselves would be responsible for footing the costs of any hurricane damage.

An issue of the native language newspaper Ke Au Okoa, published August 17, 1871. Photo: Papakilo Database

The old newspapers revealed that the 1871 hurricane left “tornado-like” destruction in its wake. One reader wrote: “the bridge turned like a ship overturned by the carpenters, and it was like a mast-less ship on an unlucky sail.” Applying modern-day scales to historical eyewitness reports in the newspapers, Businger and his colleagues back-categorized the hurricane as at least a category 3.

They reconstructed the path of the 1871 hurricane using the descriptions of wind direction and damage to property and the island, showing that neither Maui nor the island of Hawaii were protected from hurricanes. Hurricane insurance, they concluded, was still necessary for Hawaii residents today. Just because there hadn’t been a hurricane in living memory did not mean there wouldn’t be one in the future.

“If you know for a fact that a category 3 or 4 has hit certain islands before, that changes the equation for hurricane risk for the Hawaiian islands,” Businger says. He and Nogelmeier noted in their report that “there would be much greater destruction if a storm of similar intensity and track were to occur today.”

In 2012, Businger testified against one of the house bills attempting to downgrade building code requirements and scrap hurricane insurance.

“I think that Native Hawaiian and other Indigenous knowledge will save us.”

“No one living in Hawaii today was a witness to the destruction visited on the Islands of Hawaii and Maui,” he said in his statement. “A hurricane on the right track with the right steering flow will pass right over the Island of Hawai’i, like a speed bump, leaving a wake of destruction just as it did in 1871.”

Following Businger’s testimony, the bill failed to pass. Now, many islanders are well versed on how to protect their homes from hurricane damage, thanks to government advice that is regularly distributed, and building codes that require protection against hurricanes and other extreme weather events have remained in place. Knowledge of such a powerful hurricane, uncovered in the historical newspaper records, better defines the hurricane risk faced by the people of Hawaii today.

As Kaiwipuni Lipe, PhD, Native Hawaiian affairs program officer at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa, put it, “I think that Native Hawaiian and other Indigenous knowledge will save us.”

Now that Nogelmeier’s work has helped ensure Hawaii’s residents have financial protection from hurricane damage, he hopes islanders can learn more from the wisdom the newspaper letter writers had to offer.

Meanwhile, Nogelmeier’s project is still ongoing, at a time when Hawaii residents, many of them Native Hawaiians, are now working on reviving the Hawaiian language. Though most of the newspapers have been digitized, translations are taking a lot longer. “We’ve translated a few thousand pages,” he says, speaking of the efforts of his team at Awaiaulu, a nonprofit he founded to focus solely on revitalizing Hawaiian language. Some 14 students in training translate around 50 to 75 pages every week. “They are the ones who will do this for the next generation. I joke we’re breeding unicorns. We can’t find the funds to keep us afloat, but we have a great group and we have confidence that this work needs to be done.”

From insights about how to cultivate the land to extreme weather documentation resuscitating these yellowed, antique newspapers and distributing their wisdom will be key to preserving Hawaii’s fragile future. “I think it is amazing that these newspapers are becoming more accessible to Native Hawaiians because we have so much to learn from our ancestors,” said Lipe. “But this translation work is also being used to educate non-Hawaiians: others who live in Hawai‘i and also people from around the world.”

“Hawaiian language,” he adds, “is a key to understanding the world around us.”

Freelance Multimedia Journalist in Los Angeles | Covering Environment, People | Lensherriff@gmail.com

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