The great Chilean earthquake of 27 February triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific. I wrote about my experiences in the 1960 tsunami here on TNB, never imagining that I’d be writing a companion piece only a few months later. While working on my posting, it occurred to me that because many people have Google Earth on their computers, I should specify enough place and street names so that readers can get a look at where I’ve been today. Here’s how my tsunami day went.
6 AM. Sirens. I’m lying awake, ready to get up, drink some coffee, go downtown and run 10k along the bay front, where it’s flat.The sirens start, and my first thought is – tsunami! Then I wonder about it. Maybe somebody mis-programmed the monthly test? But no, they keep wailing. So I get up, and because I haven’t bothered dragging the old boom box down from the closet shelf, and there’s no regular radio in the house, I go to my computer. Indeed, yes. Those are tsunami sirens, so I go in and wake Ruth. She wears earplugs. She’s startled.
6:15. I say, You make the coffee, and I’ll go fill up the Quest. I made a couple of runs to The Dump yesterday, and the fuel low light went on. I didn’t bother getting gas because I didn’t have my wallet.
6:20. Oh. I’m not the only one who needs gas. At the Union 76, the line stretches half a mile. Oh. I’ll wait it out.
6:25. On Hawai’i Public Radio, the Saturday morning host, who usually plays modern music, is doing the tsunami warning. In the background he’s playing John Adams’ “Shaker Loops.” Excellent choice – agitated and rousing, but not ominous.
6:30. Inching along. For the first time, I hear the Emergency Broadcast System alert squawks followed by an actual message. Not “This is a test . . . .” Nope. A Hawai’i County Civil Defense person comes on with the detailed warning.
6:35. I’m in front of the Kaumana Fire House. I don’t want to stop in front of the engines, so I leave a gap. Oh! Somebody drives along and cuts in in front of me. This is Manhattan Bridge behavior. Somebody’s really worried. Never mind. If he doesn’t want to act in the Hawaiian way, I will. I don’t give him the stink eye.
7:00. Sirens again.
7:15. Switching between stations, I note that not every announcer knows what a “fathom” is. The official recommendation is that vessels go offshore to where the depth is “100 fathoms,” so some are saying “600 feet,” which is correct, and others “600 fathoms,” doing the X6 thing but forgetting to change the unit. Some feet and meter differences, too. One source says 7 feet expected, another says 4 meters. That’s a significant difference.
7:20. I fill up.
7:25. Back home. I gather up all the loose water bottles in the car. Might as well fill them, too. For sure, the power’s going out and I can’t remember whether the water flows when the power’s out.
7:30. A few email messages in from the Mainland. My sister reminds me not to be an idiot as I was in 1960. I respond that I’m 50 years older and most likely wiser.
7:59. I get out a general email reminding people who haven’t been at my house on Wailuku Drive in Pi’ihonua that it’s not near the shore. I put in a link to my TNB tsunami piece. I include Greg and Matt in the email: Matt because he’s lived in Hawai’i, and because I loved his Katrina piece, and Greg because I’ve been commiserating with him about the snow.
8:00. Sirens again.
8:20. Irving calls from the mainland. “Don’t go down to that bridge,” he says. We talk about snow.
8:40. I remember that my trailer can haul anything, not just waste. So I call my friend Alan at Alan’s Art and Antiques in case he needs help moving his stuff. Alan’s store is on the waterfront. He says No, I’m just taking a few things. And he reminds me that the 1957 Hilo Intermediate School yearbook that I haven’t picked up is at his house. So it’s safe, he says. I call Dragon Mama, Mrs. Suzuki, in case she needs help. She has a tatami, futon, and cloth place, also on the waterfront. A lot of our furniture came from her shop. She says No, we’re going to take a chance. She’s putting everything on the higher shelves and can tolerate a few feet of water in the store.
9:00. I call Carolyn. Does she know anybody who needs hauling help? It’s getting late, but I can hitch up quickly. No, she doesn’t. She lives up near the Volcano.
9:30. It’s a beautiful day. Sunny and cool. This is good, because if it gets bad down there, it’ll be easier for the workers.
9:35. I start thinking about where to go to watch. Charge the camera batteries. Charge the cell phones.
9:40. The tsunami ETA is 11:20. It’s nice when a pending disaster has a fairly precise schedule.
9:44. I start typing this. How did I forget about TNB? I need to mind my priorities. In a while I’ll drive down to town and see about a safe vantage point.
9:46. I hear that all water’s been shut off along coastal zones, so the tsunami can’t drive salt water and sewage into the system. I wonder if they did that in 1960?
10:00. Sirens again. It is a different sequence, I think. Longer. I head for town. Sailboats out beyond the breakwater. It’s a beautiful scene, like a regatta. But they’re fleeing to 100 fathom water. Most of the good vantage spots are taken. People have lawn chairs and even canopies in some of the best spots. I drive by the old Main Fire Station, where I went early in the morning in May 1960 to start trying to rescue people. Coming home, I drive past the old Hospital, which is now the County Annex. I feel it pulling me. From the road, I can see the old ambulance entrance. That’s where we took the dead bodies.
10:05. Ruth is on the phone talking to a friend in California. I feel a surge of irritation. A tsunami is coming! The ordinary world will be shaken. I immediately realize how ridiculous my feeling is. We’re in no danger at all.
10:10. A new ETA: 11:04. And no one will see it coming. On the Mainland, when there’s a winter storm or lake effect warning, I get the weather radar on my screen and see the trouble forming. See it moving. But this thing’s different. It’s out there, a wave front moving through deep water, not showing itself. For all that we’ve had hours of warning, when it does arrive, it’s going to leap up suddenly.
10:15. I stand on the porch, thinking. I go down to the van and open the hatch. Bungees and the tarp from my last dump run. I decide to leave them there. Somebody might need them. I walk into my shop and pick up my heavy ax. Should I put it in the van, just in case I have to do rescue work? I already have my biggest Gerber knife in my pocket, for the same reason. No, that’s silly. This isn’t 1960. Other people are ready to handle these things. And yet . . . I put the ax in the van. I keep my knife in my pocket. I feel simultaneously well-prepared and silly.
10:30. Time to go. I tell Ruth she should wear sneakers, just in case we have to walk in wreckage. Is that going to happen? No. I put on my red Nike trail running shoes. Then I feel stupid, because I’m also wearing a red t-shirt. I hate thinking that anybody might think I chose my red shoes to go with my red shirt. I get in the car, Mister Red Man.
10:32. I run back inside to shut down all the computers. There could be a power surge, or the power could go out and the batteries run down before we get back.
10:35. Heading down the hill. I say to Ruth, If it happens, you’ll never forget what you’ll see. It’s a mighty force. I also use the word “inexorable,” which is a word I rarely use, but it’s the right word. The sea just keeps on coming at you. I want her to see it, so we can share it. She only knows about 1960 from my memories.
10:38. I’m thinking that Haili Street might be the best spot. The 1960 tsunami was also spawned in Chile, and it crashed into the Hamakua coast, out past Honoli’i, and then was reflected straight into Hilo Bay. Or at least that was the reconstruction – it was 1 AM that time, and so nobody actually saw it happen. Today, if this tsunami barrels at us out of the same direction, I’d like to see that reflection for myself. But from Haili St, we can’t see Honoli’i.
10:45. I drive down a little side street that parallels Haili, but I don’t grab a space for a while. I find a parking place on Kapiolani. OK, it’s a good place, Honoli’i or no Honoli’i.
10:48. I tell Ruth, Let’s walk farther down towards the shore. We might be able to see out towards Honoli’i. We walk. The Water Department guys are driving around in their trucks. We get down where I hoped it might be good, but it’s not. Time to go back up the hill. I say, we might as well walk over to Waianuenue and go back up that way. We still have time. Ten minutes to go.
10:56. We’re walking back up Waianuenue, past my old elementary school. The sidewalks are crowded. More lawn chairs. I catch my toe on a sidewalk slab and stumble. A woman says, Don’t get hurt up here! I laugh. She asks, What’s it like down there? I say, Oh, it’s OK except the water’s boiling and it’s full of poisonous snakes. She laughs. Everybody laughs. I feel like a dork. I am a dork. This is surreal. Ruth and I are worried about getting back to Haili St in time for the show which, we know, starts at 11:04.
10:58. We get to the van. I whip a quick U-turn and get over to Haili St. There’s a place!
11:00. We walk up to where the view’s pretty good. Lots of people. There’s a guy wearing a “Harbor Security” patch. I wonder why he’s not down at the harbor, but I don’t say anything except that I’m a 1960 survivor. We talk about how teenagers believe they’re immortal.
11:02. Lots of sailing boats and some larger craft out past the breakwater. I’d be farther out, if I had a boat. I think I see a whale, but I’m not sure so I don’t say anything. But I start thinking about it. Will the whale be surprised? Then I think, No, probably there’s some acoustic energy preceding the wave. I don’t like thinking about a humpback being lifted over the breakwater and crashing into the shops along Kamehameha Avenue. But if it happens, I’ll get there with my camera somehow. It would be a great shot.
11:04. Show time! But there’s nothing. Helicopters – four of them, and now five, when they’re joined by a large Army chopper, down from the Pohakuloa Training Area. A Coast Guard C-130 rescue plane is circling, circling.
11:15. Nothing. There’s a bunch of teenagers sitting on a truck. I can’t resist, so I go over and tell them that when I was their age, I was down on the Wailuku bridge, and almost died. They’re impressed. What did you think? one asks. I’m going to fucking die! I say. They laugh. They’ll never fucking die.
11:20. Nothing, except I think one reef by the breakwater is exposed. I call to the kids, Look at the reef, it’s coming. I shape my voice to sound ominous. It doesn’t come. They are polite.
11:25. Nothing, except I realize that I’m leaning on a little pickup truck with an “Eddie Would Go” bumper sticker. This is very amusing, so I photograph Ruth and the Eddie Would Go sticker. Eddie Aikau was a famous big-wave surfer and lifeguard, who died in the Molokai Channel going for help when the double canoe Hokule’a overturned. I didn’t know Eddie but I did know somebody who sailed on Hokule’a.
11:40. Nothing. It’s hot. Maybe some other reefs are showing, maybe not. I can just barely see the tip of the breakwater, and it seems choppy there, as if something’s churning.
11:45. Nothing. I start talking to the woman whose house we’re in front of. Her family lost their fishing boat in 1960. We talk about 1960. She’s clearly pleased that nothing has happened. I’m not as pleased as she is. I admit this to myself. I want a 1960 replay except in daylight and with only a little destruction and nobody dead. I want to see it happening and not be terrified when I do.
11:55. Time to go. And yet . . . I can’t go home. So I head for Kaiwiki, where there’s a panoramic view of the bay. To get there, we drive across one of the Wailuku River bridges upstream from the bridge I was on. It’s packed with people. In 1960, people on this bridge saw me and my friends clinging to the bridge. They didn’t know who we were. In 2007 I ran into somebody in Buffalo whose father had been on that bridge, watching. He sent me an email: So you were one of those idiots.
12:10. Up to Kaiwiki. More spectators. Somebody in an old red Nissan Pathfinder has driven right out into the middle of an agricultural field. For a better view? It doesn’t seem better to me. We stay there a while. Nothing happening.
12:30. Down the hill. I’ll try Wainaku, near Alae Cemetery. Up Kulana Kea road with its No Trespassing signs, and a clump of orange cones that must have been strung out across the road this morning. Lots of cars. There are many giant raised-up pickups. I wish I had one to use today. Great view. I see serious churning in the bay, clearly a big outflow past the breakwater. And the waves against the breakwater seem more massive and synchronized than usual.
12:40. My son calls from the Adirondacks. Snow. Bad cell service. He didn’t know. He just saw my email on his iPhone. It’s all over, I tell him.
12:57. The whale breaches. So it was a whale. I keep my finger on the shutter and when it breaches again, I get it. Why don’t I have a huge telephoto? If I drop the whale image into my TNB piece, it’s going to be pixellated. People will laugh. The bay’s beautiful, but nothing’s happening.
1:00. Head home.
1:15. My stepson calls. What’s happening, I just saw it on the news. Well, it was nothing, and now it’s over.
1:20. Home. A bunch of emails, including one from Matt, who wishes the tsunami to pass like a flowing stream rather than a raging torrent. There’s one from Greg, who has snow and won’t have power until Tuesday. Those are worse circumstances than mine would have been, even if the tsunami had lived up to its billing.
1:30. How to make sense of the day? I can’t. It’s too complicated, emotionally. It’s wrong to feel disappointment because a natural disaster didn’t live up to expectations. It was so scheduled, and I admired that. The warning system, the computer models. The emergency preparations were precise and well-executed. Everything worked as it was supposed to. At Civil Defense they must be celebrating, and they should be. And yet I feel certain that among them, there are some who are disappointed that they will have very little post-tsunami work to do.
2:00. Well, for excitement I can thin my banana patch and take a load to the dump. I put the ax back in the shop. I get my machete and fell a couple of dozen bananas, and load the heavy green-black trunks, wetting myself with their juices. It’s the only water that’s hit me today. I hitch up the trailer and head down the hill for The Dump.
2:15. Oh, the Dump is closed today.