On Saturday 27 October 2012 at 8:37 pm HST, I received a text message on my mobile phone from an old friend in Colorado Springs. It was a direct tweet “@UncleKorm: @MauiTips be alert>> “@NWS_WCATWC: Sun Oct 28 03:08:37 UTC 2012 event picture http://t.co/4apXEwI0” To those of you who do not tweet, this SMS may seem cryptic and impersonal. It caught my attention as I was expecting a quiet night of writing.
Earthquake of 7.7 magnitude off Queen Caroline Islands in West Coast of Canada may generate a tsunami, heading to Hawaii. First to hit Maui at 10:28 pm HST. Highest wave expected at Kahului Harbor, Maui. [The Mauitips blog photo above is a picture of the harbor, as seen from elevated Wailuku.]
After doing my due diligence and tweeting #hitsunami with what I knew and saw, my friend called me at 9 pm. It was 1 am his time.
“What are you doing at this hour? Aren’t you supposed to be asleep?” I cried.
He was worried about me. I reassured him that I had been through the Japanese tsunami watch in March 2011 and that I had written an elegy for the South East Asia tsunami in 2005. Neither of these qualified me an expert in tsunamis but I felt I knew more than he did. The Japan earthquake of 2012 was of magnitude 9.0 and had to travel a long distance to get to Hawaii where it did cause damage. The size of the Canada earthquake was much lower but the tsunami had less distance to get to Hawaii. I did not have a regression model in my head to figure out which was the greater evil.
I walked to my landlady’s house to ask about our elevation. She’s lived here her entire life. “It won’t get up here,” she shrugged. She must know, I thought.
Unlike 9/11 which took us all by surprise, we have warning systems in place for natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. I experienced 9/11 in Manhattan as a stranger in a ghost town, unable to help or grieve for the thousands who perished. I watched TV throughout the night, switching between news channels, addicting myself to live news coverage. Getting news was a panacea for the earlier lack of information and inability to be useful to anybody. I never wanted to feel so helpless again.
Perhaps that’s why tsunami warnings in Hawaii are so irksome for me. My natural tendency in times of crisis is to try to get as much information as I can in a short space of time. Yesterday was the first time that I felt the tweets were popping up too slowly. Later Peter Liu, who was tweeting from the Noble Chef event at the Fairmont Kealani and wrote a personal blog of his experience, told me that there was limited information. Unlike other states, to get from county to county in Hawaii means you have to fly. Each county is an island. This is when the locals can provide more information than newscasters who are based elsewhere.
It was a waiting game. Sirens started sounding. I counted 5 in my area. I walked outside to try to see the waves in the dark but moonlit night.
I found maps of evacuation zones. Water was scheduled for a shut down. We were told not to flush our toilets.
I watched live streaming TV from Honolulu at Hawaii News Live and KITV. I checked various live web cams on Maui. I updated Facebook. My friends from Singapore noticed my status updates and immediately responded with their concern.
The first wave of the tsunami is not the largest. It’s not a wave but a surge — a wave that does not stop. But 5 ft is not earth shattering. I decided to call it quits at 11 pm.
And it was a good thing, as I read in the paper the next morning.