Indonesia’s tsunami brings back vivid memories

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New sources recently reported that a giant tsunami roared ashore in Indonesia on Sept. 29 killing and destroying whole communities. It brought back vivid memories of watching for a similar wave in 2012 reportedly racing toward Hawaii from a major earthquake in the ocean off Canada’s west coast. These were anxious hours.

About a dozen of us stood looking out to sea from the third floor overlook at Paki Maui resort waiting for the wave to materialize from out of the blackness. It was October 27, 2012, and we had just learned that a giant 7.7 earthquake occurred off of Canada’s west coast and a huge tsunami was rolling across the Pacific Ocean and was expected to collide with Maui at precisely 10:28 p.m. The expected height of the surge was estimated at 5 1/2 feet, potentially devastating.

The Hawaiian Islands lie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, further from any continental land mass than any other island in any other ocean. Viewed from that perspective, we were a forlorn little group huddled on a faraway place waiting for an angry tidal wave to surge over our seawall and sweep us away. All we needed to complete the Hollywood scenario was for Fire Goddess Pele to stir things up on Haleakala, Maui’s dormant volcano.

Actually, we were more festive than forlorn, mainly because our full-time resident experts told us not to worry, the tsunami, if one arrived, would smack into the windward (east) side of Maui and we were safely on the lee (west) side. Thus assured, we chatted and joked, but I noticed that we checked the water level in the lagoon often. The clock ticked on.

When news of the Canadian earthquake interrupted most programs, all TV stations in Hawaii focused exclusively on the potential for a large tsunami. Authorities throughout the islands were ordering residents and visitors on the coastlines to evacuate to higher ground. TV shots of Honolulu demonstrated very clearly the enormous difficulty (in my view, impossibility) of suddenly evacuating large population centers anywhere in the world. The city was gridlocked by cars trying to flee to higher ground.

On Maui, we were jolted by shrieking sirens sounding off up and down the coast. A police helicopter flew low along the condos and hotels with its own siren sounding a warning from the sky. And it wasn’t long until policemen were running through our condo, pounding on the first floor doors and ordering everyone to evacuate.

There is a new (new to us, anyway) approach to evacuation in Hawaii ahead of a potential tsunami. It’s called, Evacuate Up. We were told to climb at least to the third floor which would place us above even a severe wave strike. This is a reassuring tactic for us given that our building is a man-made Pali (cliff). Its construction is steel reinforced concrete and cinder block. A nearby earthquake a few years ago caused a crack in one corner, but the rest of the buildings only quivered a little.

So, as we got ready to evacuate up, a friend, with an apartment on the third floor, appeared in our doorway and invited us to join him and his wife and other neighbors in his home to wait out the threat. We happily accepted.

At 10 p.m., the sirens sounded even more urgently and those of us on the overlook stared even more intently out to sea.

About two years ago, an earthquake near the big island (Hawaii) created a tsunami that did impact Paki Maui. The surge struck the windward side, then wrapped around the island to push up over our seawall to deposit sand and salt water on our lawn. This, our old timers assured us, would be the only thing that might happen this time. The clock ticked on.

Hawaiians are justifiably concerned when a tsunami alert is sounded. They listen when authorities warn them to evacuate the coast. In 1960, an earthquake in Chile sent a huge tsunami across the Pacific that slammed into Hilo on the Big Island killing 61 people and destroying five hundred structures. The wave that struck Hilo was estimated at 35 feet. Even though our immediate threat was so much less, people headed for higher ground. A 35-foot wave might even reach up to our third floor overlook.

It was now 10:20 p.m. and the landscape lights cast soft illumination into our lagoon to reveal small wavelets lifting over the outer and inner reefs. We could clearly see the white foam as each one crested. At 10:28, our evacuees grew silent. Eleven o’clock came and went. No tsunami. At 11:30, we thanked our hosts, un-evacuated and went to bed. We awoke the next morning overwhelmed with tranquility. The islands of Lanai and Molokai remained where they’ve always been and the tide was ebbing slowly revealing our outer reef. The windward side of Maui experienced a two-foot surge that did not wrap around the island to our side.

I hope that no-one reading this assumes that I take lightly the threat of tsunamis to any part of the world. In recent years we have seen the utter desolation these events can create. These threats are real to coastlines all over the world – just as are hurricanes that rise up out of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean to regularly devastate other parts of the United States. Hurricane Sandy that ripped into the East Coast is a devastating example.

Tornadoes, blizzards, firestorms and floods are all part of our collective experience and confirm that in the end, nature rules. When warnings come to nothing, we should count our blessings – and congratulate the men and women whose job it is to prepare us for these events, whether or not they come to pass. Hawaii did that very well.

That evening, with sunset upon us we were compelled to watch. It was so much nicer than waiting for a tsunami.

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Ken Cable