Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The boy who cried tsunami

This was too long and too late for another blog, so I'm throwing it in to see if it sinks. A Russian novel.

"Sir, the neighbors say I should go to the hills at 6:30."Over the phone she sounded short of breath. An image of widened eyes popped into my head. The seeds of panic had already been planted. Which is odd, because when we talked in person later she seemed somewhat vague about tsunamis. Not a big problem in Nepal, I guess.

I shrugged mentally, but promised to track it down on my computer. I did this after we had repeated ourselves several times.I've read whatever papers I could find about the geology of Saipan and never run across evidence of tsunamis. That doesn't mean it's not there. We don't have a long shallow shelf offshore. It would take a big one in the Philippines to get my juices flowing.

Then again, maybe I haven't learned much in life, but a few things stand out. Among them don't mess with mother nature and its corollary never turn your back on the ocean. I have no desire to enter the spin cycle of the Pacific.

So I went to the USGS site. Happily, because I always like to surf (bad word choice?) the internet with a purpose instead of dithering. Also unnecessarily, but I'm truly interested in these things. I knew they'd have more about the earthquake itself. Besides, I seemed to remember they linked to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, my real goal. More information for the same number of mouse clicks. (My essential laziness is exposed here)That one came up slowly, evidently there was a lot of traffic.

Sure enough, a warning was posted for 8:39 zulu, or 18:39 local if I wasn't mistaken. I double-checked in the phone book anyway; for some reason my brain becomes addled and sluggish when I ponder time zones. (Hey, we all have our phobias) One Japan station was reporting a surge of two-tenths of a foot.Not enough, but there's always the Northwest Tsunami Warning Center. That came up even more slowly. I idly wondered how many hits they were getting while I waited. Ah, much better: eight or ten stations in Alaska and Japan with about the same two-to-four inches. Let's see, mere ripples, coming from the North and attenuated by distance. I probably wouldn't jump into a sunset cruise boat at 6:59, just in case, but no worries.

Called my employee to hold her hand telephonically and said I'd check again before I relieved her at six. The whole process took ten minutes, tops, and that with the side trips I always enjoy 'as long as I'm on the site'.

So I checked. Sure enough the warning was canceled. I basked in the glory known to all armchair scientists who guess right while admiring a graphic depicting the Pacific Ocean as a giant bathtub with concentric ripples spreading from the earthquake's epicenter.

That damn telephone broke my reverie. "Sir, the police say I have to close the store and go to the hills at 6:30.' So I brought up the page with the cancellation bulletin, told the kids to show it to the police if they came by and chuckled my way to work. I had killed the intervening time watching the neighbors mill and fill all of their apartment's vehicles while chattering like they were on their way to a party.

Bored in the store, I sat on a cement block out front and played smart, dumb and ignorant using the few cars going by on Middle Road. Smart being clever like me, of course. Ignoring a tsunami waring would seem to qualify for dumb. Ignorant, well, nothing to be done, they just didn't get the word, though you'd think they'd ask someone why Garapan was deserted. It was as peaceful as I've ever seen it. Gas station lights off. No noise except the occasional car and more stars than usual. Nice.

A police officer cruised by; he chose to ignore me. Maybe he'd gotten the word by then. A couple of Bangladeshis bought some cigarettes. Sea level people do worry about tsunamis, but they were watching their little colony's possessions because of the deserted village.

My neighbor hove into view, tacking against a headwind, a Budweiser can for ballast. A northerly tack took him close so I asked about his tsunami. "Tsunami? I was on the beach drinking beer," he answered, turning East. A customer told me he'd gone to the top of the mountain.OK, that was long prologue, but it's meant to introduce some questions.

Obviously, there were changes in sea level Saturday and back in November, so the warnings weren't false alarms. One of the papers, the Tribune I think, said fewer people evacuated this time. I didn't see that in Garapan, but who knows?

The questions then: Did more people get their own information like me or is the "crying wolf" phenomenon at work here? Will that be a problem if the Big One ever comes? Can the emergency people 'fine tune' the way they get information to DPS and out on the street? A few patrol cars can't protect everyone's property. I was expecting to read that our copper packrats used the opportunity to get more scrap. I'm not being critical here. The police can't take chances with public safety, they had to evacuate based on the information they got, and they did it well.

But... has anyone ever estimated our tsunami hazard? How much damage would be done by a one-foot wave? Two feet? Coming from what direction? Could education be provided from time to time between warnings? People who haven't learned the lesson of Indonesia, Thailand, et al could use a little help here. Also, I feel a bit sorry for folks who think they have to climb the highest mountain.


Anonymous said...

Mr., can I have a farm too?
Who gets a farm?
How do I get a big farm in the nice part?
My allowance isn't big, can I pay less than my neighbor?
Why do you get all of the tractors?
Do your friends get to drive the tractors first?

KAP said...

Umm...See blog above.