Just another day in the neighborhood, when you’re a slough-monster living on the Ring of Fire.
I must admit, I live in a dumb place. My house, known as The Shack, is over a hundred years old, built out of scrap wood and cast-offs, sitting on ancient spruce pilings that rest on a gravel beach. When the tide is high, fish swim under the house. When the tide is low, birds fly through that same space. I keep a keen eye on the tide book, the wind, and the barometer, and put my ukulele up in the loft when I think I might get my socks wet. So far, I’ve been lucky, and the place hasn’t flooded while I’ve lived here. But it did flood once within the last twenty years, and probably will again some day.
If a tsunami decided to roll in, The Shack would be one of the first buildings to go. My neighbor Walt, who thinks about how things work, figures that if you left the doors open the buildings would simply flood, rather than lift off the pilings and float away. I’m not sure which would be worse.
We had a chance today to test out Walt’s hypothesis, although — fortunately — the experiment did not actually take place. This is how our tsunami drill went:
After splitting and stacking wood all day, I was tired and went to bed early last night. I’d been asleep for two or three hours already when the bed started to shake. “Earthquake!” I said out loud, before I was even fully awake. It was a gentle one, but seemed to last a long time. I lay there in my comfy memory-foam bed, counting, “One thousand one, one thousand two…” Wondering, should I get up? It’s probably safer to just stay put, since climbing down the ladder through the loft hatch could be slightly hazardous. “One thousand 50, one thousand 51…” How long is this thing gonna last? It doesn’t seem to be getting any stronger. The wine glasses and pots and pans aren’t even clinking and clanking against each other. “One thousand 80, one thousand 81…” Alright, finally it seems to be stopping.
I look at the clock. It shows 12:36. I’m relieved, then say out loud, “Tsunami.” Guess I should get dressed.
I climb downstairs and turn on the computer, look at tsunami.gov (will it be operational, during a gov’t shutdown?). It shows where the earthquake epicenter was, and yes, indeed, that a tsunami alert is in effect.
At 12:42 I get a text from my friend Carlin: “Please monitor for tsunami. You are the first low-lying beach troll I thought of. Be safe!” Ahem. What did you just call me?
Turn on the radio. KBBI is playing some kind of elevator music. Grab the essentials: passport, cash, wallet, phone & charger cord, headlamp, water, extra sweater, camera, laptop, tide book, Peanut.
I go next door. Walt & Sachiko are up. They don’t seem especially alarmed, but they are packing a few things into backpacks. Walt asks if I have any food, offers me a banana. We wonder if we should bring beer. Food seems like a good idea, so I go back to The Shack, and pack Round 2: Dried fruit, granola, toothbrush & toothpaste, contact lens solution. It’s hard to fit it all in my daypack. Wondering why, for the Nth time, I don’t have a disaster pack sitting by the door, ready to go. I realize I don’t have a knife, any fire-making supplies or even a lighter, or probably a lot of other important survival equipment on me. I don’t have any coffee! And my end-of-the-world safety gear (boat, bicycle, fishing pole, firewood) would all disappear in a tsunami. There is a flaw in my plans, I see.
A high-pitched siren goes off. It’s the tsunami warning, telling us to evacuate.
I turn off the propane in the shed. Then I’m standing on the boardwalk, watching snowflakes come down, eye-balling the level of water in the Slough, when a car pulls up. It’s Cassidi, our City Manager. She’s been driving around, checking on folks, making sure everyone’s awake and that we get to higher ground. She tells me the school is open as an emergency shelter, and I feel a wave of relief (ah, terrible pun!) wash over me. I’d imagined huddling under a spruce tree, somewhere uphill, shivering in the cold. Cassidi says the tsunami warning will be in place until 2:55 AM.
Walt & Sachiko and I start walking. Walt leaves The Barn door open. I leave The Shack door closed. We’ll see what happens.
They stop to get Walt’s Model A pickup, and head out the road to their friends’ place. I arrive at the school and join about 30 other folks in the carpeted multi-purpose room. I think about the custodians, Renee and Stacy, and how they’ll have a heck of a mess to clean up after all this, since none of us took off our boots when we walked in. It’s been almost exactly an hour since I was awoken by the earthquake.
I join a bunch of friends at one of the tables. Everyone is in mild disarray, hair uncombed, various layers of pajama, fleece, and wool showing. Half of the folks forgot their glasses or hearing aids or both, so there’s some friendly shouting going on. I try to use my laptop to get on the internet, but the school’s wifi is restricted. People with smart phones can use their data, and a few updates from the outside world trickle in. Rumors of water being sucked out of the harbor on Kodiak. Questions about aftershocks. Reminiscences of the devastating 1964 Good Friday earthquake. Andrew, the volunteer fire chief, sits down next to me for a while. He tells me all the emergency vehicles have been moved up to higher ground near the school. The police chief, Robin, and the harbormaster, Layla, have checked the harbor. We can only think of two people currently living on their boats right now, and hope they’ve been contacted and told to leave. But they aren’t here with us at the school, so we don’t really know if they’re ok.
After about an hour, boredom sets in. Everyone’s yawning. The kids are playing Yahtzee, and occasionally a ping pong game starts up. Dogs are out in the cars in the parking lots, probably getting cold by now. I go for two walks, one to take Bianca, my Schnauzer friend, for a stroll, and one to call my parents. At least my cell phone works.
Around three, Joe starts to agitate, wants to go home. We talk him down. (“Don’t go now, it’s right when the wave is supposed to hit!) At 3:12 AM, the tsunami warning is cancelled, and downgraded to a tsunami advisory. “I don’t know what ‘advisory‘ means, but I don’t think I want to go home yet.” I say out loud. Tania immediately invites me to her house, and puts me to bed in a cozy room with clean sheets and a dyne (Norwegian word for duvet.) It takes a while to fall asleep, after all that adrenaline and social interaction, but soon I drift off and sleep so soundly that I miss a couple of texts from friends, trying to find out if I’m ok. When I wake up, it’s almost 10 AM. We’re so fortunate: the power is on and the house is warm and dry. Tania & Tobben feed me a full Norwegian breakfast with coffee and soft-boiled eggs and pickled herring and Jarlsberg and codfish caviar pate and homemade bread and jam…. we talk about books and travel, sailing and islands, earthquakes and dogs, hiking and trails. It’s all quite leisurely, until I suddenly realize that my Facebook post from ten hours ago was a cliffhanger. There are probably people who are wondering if I’m alive!
I start walking home. Town is quiet, a few snowflakes falling on the deserted streets. I come around the corner and see it: The Shack is still standing. Judging by the high water mark from this morning’s high tide (17.1 feet) we didn’t even get a surge. It all looks pretty normal.
What the heck do you do after a tsunami alert? I’m sleep-deprived but jangled. There’s still half a cord of wood to stack, but before I get started my friend Valisa texts to tell me that there’s been a Surf Scoter hanging around by the mouth of the harbor. I’d like to get a photo of one, and a recorded sighting for town (usually these sea ducks are farther out and can’t be seen from the harbor), so I grab my camera and head outside. Yes! I’ll go birding. That’ll make me feel more normal.
Right outside the door I notice weasel tracks in the snow, on the porch, and all over the boardwalk. I follow the tracks toward the Barn, and see a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. This little critter is fast and agile! I’m very glad I am not a vole, chicken, or squirrel. I’m very glad to be alive. I’m very glad that the tsunami did not arrive.