Sunday, February 28, 2010

Natural non-disaster

Well, we survived the February Tsunami, and now media attention can go back to people in Chile who are having an actual disaster. It's not that it wasn't a real potential problem, but in the end what it amounted to was an enormous disaster-preparedness drill. Some people were more prepared than others.

It's worth pointing out that we did have an actual tsunami - that part wasn't exaggerated. It's just that it was three feet high in Hilo and even less in Honolulu. This does beat the only other tsunami we've had since we moved here, which was seven inches high. But it's still not enough to do any serious damage. People dumb enough to be swimming when it arrived (after six hours of civil defense sirens and the partial evacuation of Waikiki) might have risked being swept out to sea, but otherwise it was kind of a bust. Not that we're complaining.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center keeps an eye out for major seismic events in the Pacific Ring of Fire, which might be tsunami triggers, but it tracks actual tsunami activity with a series of fixed buoys scattered all around the Pacific. It's a pretty impressive array, actually, and it enables them to measure unusual wave activity as it passes one buoy after another. (Although a tsunami does not have any actual destructive power in the open ocean - that's a product of what happens when it reaches the shallows, hence the Japanese term, which means "harbor wave" - its speed and motion allow it to be detected in open water nonetheless.) This was what allowed them to make increasingly accurate calculations of the height of the expected waves as the tsunami moved across the Pacific at about the speed of a jet plane. There are also seafloor gauges called DART gauges, a relatively new technology, which may have led to the center overestimating the height of the waves, initially, and this explains the Pacific-wide warning they issued at first.

We woke up to the civil-defense sirens, which we recognized because they are tested at noon on the first weekday of every month - so we often hear them at work, but never at home. The radio was full of the kinds of warnings you might expect - time of expected tsunami, evacuation orders, etc. We're not anywhere close to an inundation zone, so there was no point in our doing anything except sitting tight. But I started to notice local friends' Facebook posts about runs on gasoline and groceries. The gasoline one got me in particular, since there is no inundation zone on any of the islands which cannot be evacuated ON FOOT. It all seemed like a massive overreaction. Apparently Costco actually had to close, not because it was running out of things, but because there were too many people in the building.

My general feeling was that the city and county government was acting reasonably, but that the citizenry in general were going off the deep end. This was slightly mitigated when we went to shul and talked to people who've lived here longer, who reported that the 1960 tsunami had led to a week-long state-wide power outage, complete with the failure of water pumping stations and sewage treatment, and that people might be buying gasoline for generators rather than cars. Still, that was fifty years ago. You'd think some lessons would have been learned in the meantime. For the most part, I do still think it was more a matter of the inability to tell between a situation calling for some caution, and an actual disaster. Which makes me a little uneasy about what might happen in case of an actual disaster.

By contrast, the civil-defense reaction seemed pretty reasonable: get everyone off the beaches, cancel the buses whose routes go through inundation zones, close the low-lying coastal roads, keep everybody informed by radio and TV. They even came up with contingency plans for a few things that hadn't been thought of when the original tsunami-response protocols were drawn up: for instance, how to mitigate the possible damage resulting from inundation of coastal sewage-treatment plants. As it turns out, it was more of a test of the protocol than an actual emergency, but now they know what works well and what not so well, for the next time.

For me the only really indelible image of the incident came as we crested the hill on the way back from synagogue, where we'd had a lovely, if underattended, set of services, followed by a potluck oneg (coffee hour/lunch) consisting of stuff people had already had in their kitchens - I think my Improvised Pasta Salad was a hit. There's a point on the road where you finally come in view of the sea, from a high enough vantage point that you can see it between and above the high-rises of downtown. There on the horizon were the boxy forms of all the container ships of an active shipping port, which had put out to sea to wait out the wave at a safe distance from shore. It's common to see a single such ship moving across the horizon as it makes for port, but I'd never seen so many at one time, like oceangoing apartment complexes lumbering awkwardly past one another in the blue distance.


Melinda said...

Great description. Very glad it turned out the way it did. Take care!

Melinda said...

I admit to a lot of compulsive Weather Channel watching until they showed me a dude standing on the beach who was totally fine, as was the Fancy Hotel behind him.