I spent the holidays on the island of Kauai, the “Garden Island” of Hawaii. Feeling the need to ride a bicycle, I found the phonebook and started looking through the Yellow Pages for a shop that rented mountain bikes. At the front of the phonebook, where there is the usual emergency contact numbers, there was a prominent section on surviving tsunamis. Fascinated by maritime disasters – hurricanes, waterspouts, shipwrecks, etc. – I read that Hawaii has a network of sirens mounted on telephone poles. In the event of a tsunami these horns would blow once, indicating one should return to one’s home and turn on the television or radio for further instructions. Should the horns blow a second time, one was instructed to haul ass to higher ground. A series of detailed maps of the coastline showed where the safe and unsafe areas were and pointed out roads that ran inland up the ravines where the high ground could be found.
I noted this information, recalling dimly a disaster that hit Hilo over 50 years ago when an Aleutian earthquake sent a tidal wave into the town, killing a large number of people.
All of this coincidentally occurred on Christmas, the day before the killer tsunami of December 26 tore across the Indian Ocean.
Being a holiday, I was not watching television, listening to the radio, or buying newspapers. It wasn’t until Monday when I was standing in line at a grocery store in Hanalei that I saw the headlines.
On Tuesday, while walking on the beach, I heard the tsunami sirens go off. Nothing like an air raid siren to get your pulse up. I looked out at the Pacific. A big swell was breaking on the reef. It was rough.
I turned around and returned to the house. Women and children were in a state of panic. None had read the phonebook. None knew what to do.
“Turn on the television,” I said. “Await further instructions.”
On went the Weather Channel, the text crawl said “Testing the Hawaiian Civil Defense Network”
It was only a test. I pulled out the phone book and showed everyone the instructions, the evacuation map. My ten-year old was happy when I told him I had biked up the road to the power house where there was safe refuge. I assured him it was far, far, above the water.
“But what about back home on Cape Cod?” he asked. “We don’t have sirens there. Couldn’t we have a tsunami too?”
So, having returned home, I did a quick Google on Atlantic tsunamis. Yes, there have been occasions where earthquake driven waves have killed people. Portugal has been hit hard in the past. Puerto Rico has been hit. Even Canada had an incident in 1929.
But the real threat is something out of a Jerry Bruckheimer flick. The island of La Palma, in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, is home to an active volcano, Cumbre Vieja.
According to British scientists, if Cumbre Vieja blows, a significant chunk of La Palma could slide into the Atlantic. Eight hours later, a tsunami as high as 100 meters could hit the eastern United States.
Congress has extended 2004 tax credits for people wishing to donate money to help the victims of the Asian tsunamis until the end of January 2005. Having spent time in one village hit hard by the disaster – Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu – and knowing the nice people who lived there, I plan on donating what I can today.