At six a.m. this morning, I was awakened by a piercing siren. Then, within seconds, every dog in the neighborhood started to howl and bark, creating a terrific cacophony. I had not slept terribly well, as I was on the floor in the Palm Room, having given up my room for the night for our visiting friends Casey and Bill. (We were supposed to go on a bird-watching hike today, but as you can surmise, it was cancelled.)
I guess I knew it was the tsunami warning going off; I was aware of the big earthquake in Chile the previous evening, and knew that tsunamis would be a likely result. Nevertheless, after the noise subsided, I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. Two minutes later the siren went off again. That’s it, I said, and got out of bed. I walked outside onto the front porch, and was greeted by this glorious sunrise:
Casey came out and joined me. Yes, she confirmed, that was the civil defense siren. We looked at each other. Wow. She and Bill have been on the Big Island for 22 years, and this was the first tsunami warning (as opposed to an advisory) they’d ever experienced.
I came back inside an logged onto my computer. There was Robin, sending me a chat note on Skype. “Tsunami!”
“I bet you’re bummed you’re not here,” I wrote back. Damn straight; Robin is fascinated with natural disasters, and tsunamis are her favorite kind. She’s always wanted to witness one, up close and personal.
“Better make sure you have candles. And water,” she wrote. They were predicting waves between 10 and 15 feet; best to be prepared for the worst. We had lots of candles. I made a bunch of ice, and then filled 12 bottles with water:
(These are the bottles we save to take water out to our palm grove in Kaimu; there’ll be a post about that one of these days.)
Just to be on the safe side, I filled the tub, too:
Then all we could do was wait. It was seven o’clock, and the first wave wasn’t due to hit until 11:05, local time.
It was going to be a beautiful day. Here’s the view at nine a.m. from our porch; you can see that we have a bit of an ocean view.
My Facebook friends were writing up a storm, wishing me the best, and I was reassuring them that our house is well out of any danger zone from tsunamis. But I was worried about quaint little Hilo Town.
Hilo has suffered two major tsunamis in recent history: in 1946, and in 1960. The one in 1946 struck without warning, and the fact that it occurred on April 1st—which caused many folks to believe the warnings were merely an April Fool’s joke—made it all the worse. It killed 159 people in Hilo and in Laupahoehoe, up the coast. The one in 1960 killed 61 people (see short history of Hawai‘i tsunamis here).
Each of those two tsunamis knocked down the row of buildings nearest the bay, which were not replaced. Thus, the downtown has gradually moved inland. Today, we were all worried about the current bayfront street: Kamehameha Avenue. Would it suffer the same fate as its predecessors in 1946 and 1960?
By ten o’clock, the neighbors were all outside, eyes turned towards the sea:
Here’s a short video I made of the activity on our street this morning:
A little before eleven, we walked down toward town, to see if we could find a safe vantage point for the big event. We could only go so far before we hit cop cars keeping people on high ground. We were not alone:
About a half dozen helicopters were buzzing above us, and several coast guard planes.
(you can see two helicopters to the right of the church tower)
Notwithstanding the underlying worry for the businesses along Kam Avenue, a festive mood prevailed:
By eleven-thirty, we were all craning our necks trying to see if anything was happening, and consulting our watches impatiently. The good news, however, was that there were several whales splashing about beyond the breakwater, provided all of with a pleasant diversion as we scanned the bay with our binoculars.
Finally we were able to see something concrete: first a line of brown, muddy water, just in front of the breakwater. I overheard someone who was talking on her cell phone to someone in Florida who was watching CNN, say that this was the result of the sea receding. And then I saw a line of rocks that I had never seen before—obviously the result of this same great sea-suck.
We watched for another hour or so, and nothing much changed. Though I did see a long, but small wave moving towards shore that reminded me of the tidal bore Robin and I had seen in Alaska. And I could see the odd splash onto Coconut Island. But all-in-all, the sea looked pretty calm. And then I heard someone else say that the news casters were saying it was basically over. So we went home.
It’s funny, but I felt mixed about the whole thing. On one hand, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see any fish flopping in the empty bay, or a swath of water coming up the street towards us. But I also was truly relieved that Hilo had been spared. (Obviously I’d pick the latter, had I the choice between the two possibilities.)
We’re going to Coconut Island tonight for cocktails. I read that sea water did wash over it, but I predict that we’ll find that it fared well.
Guess I’d better take a bath tomorrow; wouldn’t want to waste all that water.
Ola loa! (Which means “long life” in Hawai‘ian, and is our family toast at cocktail hour.)