March 14, 2011
I was having one of those extra stressful years, for no single reason. Call it statistical clustering. The universe was being a total asshole. Shelly was having the same kind of year, if not worse. It was time to find some relaxation. Shelly booked us a trip.
To Hawaii. On March 10th. Nice little room on the beach.
Damn you, universe!
Before I begin my personal account, allow me to extend my thoughts to Japan. It feels inappropriate to tell my little story in the context of their devastation. But it’s the only story I know.
We were preparing for bed on our first night in Hawaii. Shelly gets a call from her aunt. I’m brushing my teeth and listening to one side of the conversation.
Now I am left wondering how large is this earthquake, presumable in California, that it warrants a call? Californians don’t get excited about anything below a 6.0. Is our house still standing? Did our dog survive? Shelly has my full attention.
What? That can’t be right.
Shelly: “…heading our way…”
I’m not entirely sure that I finished brushing my teeth. There are many ways to begin a relaxing vacation, but none of them involves a wall of water heading your way at 600 miles per hour.
A text message pops up on Shelly’s phone. It was our local contact, Joe. The message included the scariest phrase you’re likely to see in a text: “Turn on your television.” I’ve used that phrase exactly once without first saying “hello.” That was September 11th, 2001. I grabbed the remote.
Video from Japan was streaming in. You’ve seen it. Pure destruction. Walls of water are sweeping away people, cars, boats, and buildings. And it’s scheduled to arrive in Hawaii at 3 am.
There aren’t many disasters that have such precise schedules. From our window, if the earth weren’t so round, and my eyes were telescopes, we could see Japan. It was a straight line to our door. Luckily for us, we were seven stories up.
The tsunami alarms sounded every hour. Residents in coastal areas were told to get the hell out. And they did. The only people advised to stay were those of us on high floors of buildings. The security department was keeping us updated via the public address system. Lower floors were told to go upstairs to designated areas. We watched as the lights went out in all but a few windows. And we waited.
It was an odd sort of emergency situation. There wasn’t a thing we could do to prepare. I decided to sleep, thus proving my claim that I can literally sleep any time I want. But that plan was disturbed every hour by announcements and alarms. The moon was lighting the ocean earlier in the evening, but eventually even the moon evacuated. We knew that somewhere out in the pitch black, coming our way, was enough energy to power, well, everything. And it wasn’t happy. The experts emphasized that you can’t predict how high a tsunami wave will be. The last big tsunami scare in Hawaii turned out to be mere inches. But it’s not news unless you show the worst case scenario. So all night long, the news showed coverage of the tsunami destroying Japan. We waited for our turn, able to visualize the worst case scenario in creepy detail.
Did I mention that I wasn’t relaxed? And by that I mean when I was awake. I did manage about seven naps between sirens. That’s how I roll.
In the end, the wave reached six feet, flooded some roads, damaged some harbors, but generally behaved itself. Our biggest problem the next morning was finding food. Every business on the island was closed because the town had headed for the hills. And the roads back into town were still closed. So we waited.
That day brought with it the oddest feeling. No one on the island had slept the night of the tsunami. And yet everyone was in a good mood, relieved that the tsunami had been mild. There was no such thing as a stranger that day. We all had a shared experience. You could talk to anyone as if you had known them forever. And we did. It was a rare and wonderful thing. You felt connected to every person as if by telepathy. I know what you did last night.
Then we heard the news of the damage to the nuclear power plants in Japan. I wondered how far and how fast radiation travels. We finished our brief time in Hawaii, and had a great time in spite of the universe’s obviously bad mood. Now we’re back in California. But the minivan is all gassed up and pointing East.