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Spectator at the Disaster

Nature in violent action can be spectacle, tragedy and object of scientific wonder all at once

John Dvorak

I remember the moment when I heard the first report. The date was February 26, 2010. I was at home listening to the tease for the late-night news on television. The news anchor, in a clear and slightly exaggerated tone, announced that a major earthquake had struck Chile. A single thought formed instantly in my head—tsunami!

2011-01Macro-DvorakFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageTo those of us who live on islands in the middle of the Pacific, the thought is never far off that a distant earthquake might generate a sea wave that races across the ocean, runs up on shore and sweeps away a community. In Hilo, Hawaii, where I live, tales are told of such a wave in 1946, generated by an earthquake in Alaska. The onslaught began as a pull-back of the sea. Within minutes, those who had gathered along the edge of the strangely emptied Hilo Bay witnessed the sea return as a wall of water. The great wave slammed into a row of buildings that outlined the edge of the bay, then plowed those buildings into the buildings on the other side of the street. Ninety-six people drowned. The area swept vacant by the wave is now a city park where kids play soccer.

The next earthquake-generated wave to hit Hilo was in 1960. A friend who was then a teenager told me that as soon as he and his pals heard that a wave was rushing toward the island, they hustled down to the edge of Hilo Bay to watch it come in. They stood on a small iron bridge close to the shoreline positioned no more than a few feet above high tide. The first wave arrived on schedule and passed under the bridge. Twenty minutes later, a second wave arrived and did the same. Disappointed, my friends and his pals left and went home. Later, a third wave arrived. This one crested fourteen feet over the bridge. Seawater surged as far as a mile inland. Sixty-one people died. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed.

The 1960 wave was generated by an earthquake in Chile. On the night that I heard the report of the latest Chilean quake, local news crews assembled outside the building that houses the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, located in Honolulu. A spokesman stood outside before a cluster of microphones and informed the public that a large earthquake had just occurred in Chile, similar to the one in 1960, and that a Pacific-wide tsunami was possible. Nothing more would be known, he said, for at least a few hours. By then, the anticipated wave would have passed a buoy tethered in the ocean and designed specifically to detect such waves.

With nothing more to learn, I went to bed.

I awoke at five o’clock the next morning and turned on the television. There it was—the scene I had imagined for years. The same spokesman stood in front of the warning center, reading an official statement. A wave had been generated and was spreading across the Pacific. He then read a list of the times the first wave was expected to arrive at specific places around the islands. The first wave would arrive in Hilo Bay at 11:19 A.M. I woke my family and we made plans to watch the event.

By nine o’clock we were standing on a hillside about a mile from the shoreline at a place that offered an excellent view of the bay. The weather was clear and sunny. It was Saturday, so there were no concerns about children in school. We were standing in a crowd of other families.

Among those in the crowd were many who lived near the coastline in areas that might be swamped by the approaching wave. As far as I could tell, no one had stuffed their cars or trucks with packing boxes and mattresses to move their worldly possessions to high ground. All they had transported were their vehicles and their pets. The mood of the crowd was neither festive nor somber. Everyone was simply waiting.

At ten o’clock the first sirens sounded. Thirty minutes later, I heard over a car radio that all coastal roads were closed. Police stood at barricades partway down the hillside to prevent anyone from entering the closed area. At eleven o’clock the sirens sounded a second time. That signaled that the first wave would arrive in 20 minutes.

Exactly at the predicted time, the entrance to Hilo Bay began to turn brown. Someone shouted, “It’s starting!”

The brown patch grew as seawater was pulled out of the bay, the force of the water kicking up silt from the bottom. A reef of black rocks, normally visible only during extreme low tide, appeared just off a popular picnic spot known as Coconut Island. It was the clearest sign that the water level in the bay was dropping. After 10 minutes, the rocks were covered again by seawater. A few more cycles, each lasting 20 to 30 minutes, the water level changing no more than a few feet, and the event was over. The city of Hilo had been spared.

Through it all, even as I was preparing to go to bed the previous night and, later, as I stood with my family and my neighbors and watched the water recede and recover, I kept thinking about those other people, thousands of miles away, somewhere along the coast of Chile. An unknown number of souls were trapped beneath the rubble of buildings that had collapsed during the earthquake. At that moment they were wondering whether they would ever be rescued.

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