Friday, March 11, 2011

I Survived the Hawaii Tsunami

Reading about the devastating 8.9 earthquake that struck north-eastern Japan last night and its immediate wall-of-water tsunami makes me grateful that my evacuation to higher ground and TV vigil here in Hawaii were capped by an exciting but inconsequential series of exaggerated ebbs and flows.
Tsunami in Japan, March 11, 2011

As a Southern California native I can recall the complete panic when walls shake, vases crash, and pendant lamps sway violently.  But then to have a thrust of water filled with deadly moving debris seems too horror-movieish to contemplate.  At least Japan is civilized and smart enough to have implemented building codes to minimize loss of life, and it was that kind of civility that reigned last night here on Oahu.

I'm staying for a few days with friends whose gorgeous home is close to the rocky edge of a bay, and when we turned on the TV last night about 8 pm, we were told to look inside the telephone directory to determine if we were in an "inundation zone" and must evacuate. Sure enough, we were.

Coverage on all the TV channels featured experts predicting a rise in sea level of about 6 feet that would cover low-lying areas to about 465 feet from shore.  Waikiki tourists were "evacuated up" to hotels' higher floors several hours before the tsunami's expected 3:07 am touchdown in the northernmost Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Facts about tsunamis I never thought I'd have to be scared by:  The powerful water rushes at a speed of 500 mph from the earthquake site, in a series of waves that unlike the ones I body surf in, last fifteen to twenty minutes each.  No in-and-out for these big guys--after each 20 minute inundation the wave recedes and then, about a half hour later, returns--but usually the biggest wave is not the first.  They don't know which one will be--and the cycle continues for three hours.

As a kid I had nightmares where I was in a beachfront hotel, looking out from maybe the 15th floor--I see a gigantic wave, 30-stories high, coming from afar to envelop the entire building. Just as it's crashing onto me, I wake up, panicked.

No. That is not the way it happens.

I couldn't shake memories of that nightmare, however, when I heard the long, strong blasts of the emergency sirens that started about 10 pm and sounded every hour thereafter.  The most startling thing, though, was when police drove by with loudspeakers commanding everyone to leave to higher ground.  Mustachio'd talking heads on TV gave scientific updates from the Tsunami Control Center, with bulletins about clinics and schools closed--and "places of refuge" where residents in coastal homes could congregate.  Hawaiians got the message and formed long lines at gas stations and food stores.

I packed my rolly suitcase and set my phone alarm for when we'd have to leave, then dozed off in front of the TV. In a flash it was time, and my friends and I drove to a hilltop home with a commanding view of the bay below.  I took a cell video of the dark town with the background of sirens, and hunkered down by the TV to await impact.

Three-oh-seven arrived and Kauai was quiet.  The surveillance camera views shifted from Waikiki, to Diamond Head, to beaches on Kauai.  Then the first hit--the waves moved quickly, each lapping higher on the Kauai sand. Twitter and email reports were read; the edge of the sea rose several feet, though there was no single rolling wave. Then the waves reached less high with each churn, taking several minutes to pull much farther out than the original level.

Shift to street cam views of Waikiki, where a foolhardy couple sat on a retaining wall just a few feet from the sea. Commentators repeated how stupid they were to stay there. They blithely sat, until minutes before the expected wave police helicopters with strong searchlights hovered above them.  In the next view before impact, they were gone.

The waves in the Diamond Head view, illuminated by a resident's strong outdoor lights, started to lap higher and higher, with greater frequency.  They rose above the original level, licking up into a steep sand incline.  Cut to the experts saying the first wave isn't usually the strongest. Then back to Diamond Head and--wow!--the water had receded astoundingly, revealing long reefs that were now dry rock.  The cameras panned out until the light dimmed too much--it seemed the seabed was dry for hundreds of feet.  Newscasters marveled that in this surf spot, where a close-in reef is later mirrored by one farther out, both were visible.  The naked reefs glistened interminably, quietly.  Then I saw what looked like white side-winder snakes, far out, coming closer.  The water was returning not with a roll or normal waves but these hissing wavy serpents of foam, moving along, first across the far reef and then the closer, and then onto the sand.

Once returned, the water again receded, revealing the two reefs. But again the return waves stayed on the sand.

After watching for hours without any devastation to keep me alert, I dozed off, and soon my friends wanted to leave for home.  And it's a glorious day in paradise.

A memorable vacation, undoubtedly.  One to increase my gratitude for solid earth, and add new life to the Jewish morning blessing to "God, King of the Universe, who spreads out the earth upon the waters" and "...who firms man's footsteps."  Every normal day is another miracle.


  1. Amen and amen! (to your last sentence or thought). God is good, and I'm glad that you and the rest of the West Coast and HI were all safe (except for, I believe, one person who was dangerously sightseeing in Crescent City). My two sons (13 and 11) both worry about all of these earthquakes around the world. They know them by name: Boxing Day Tsunami, Chile, Haiti, China, now Japan. As young Christians they are aware of (and curious about) the eschatology that "birth pangs" represent ... and they worry.

    What a powerful world God has created! Anthropogenic global warming?! Puhhh!

  2. Jg, we can never take a moment for granted; wise that your sons don't. One moment things seem secure; the next, the world is shaken. Literally.

  3. THANK YOU Diane for the graphic retelling of your experience! I am glad you all are ok! We'll keep listening to MM, and certainly continue to thank God for all our blessings as we remember to pray for those not so fortunate this time. PS Love the "bangs" picture - I remember those!! Hahahaha!