Most people in the US learned about the earthquakes in Japan and the potential tsunami when they woke up Friday morning. We learned about them Thursday night as we were putting our boys to bed when a friend called to tell us about the earthquake and that the tsunami was scheduled to hit our beachfront location at 2:59 AM.
You see, we are on vacation visiting friends in Hawaii right now. Right on the coast, about 30 feet above the water. When the tsunami hit Japan, it was 30 feet high, so the possibility definitely existed that our room would get water. Even if it didn’t, a tsunami as small as 10 feet could knock out electrical and water systems, as well as communication and some transportation.
We already had a plan in place. Our friends went through the same thing with the last tsunami and simply drove away from the coast to higher elevation. We just needed to pack up what we’d need for a few days if things got bad.
My first action was to walk over to a local convenience shop. We had lots of food in our room, but if the tsunamis were bad, we didn’t know how many days we’d be on our own.
I travel a lot, and always carry a few days of food and supplies with me so that I can self-support for a few days, no matter where I am. I also use a layered system that goes from VERY small and minimalist, to a camelback, to some bigger items that I carry in my checked luggage. In short, even if we didn’t get anything from the store, we were set for shelter, fire, water, food, security, medical, and trauma needs if things got squirrely.
Going to the store was surreal. I knew what was coming and nobody else seemed to. Couples were strolling along after romantic dinners in paradise without a care in the world. Customers in the store were buying liquor, candies, and sunscreen. I was buying bread, crackers, butter, & cream cheese to round out what we already had. Basically, I was looking for the densest caloric foods I could find at a convenience store that didn’t have too high of a glycemic index.
I headed back to our room, we put the boys to bed and started loading stuff up into our rental car. There were a couple other people doing the same thing, but not many.
Then, at about 10 PM, the civil alert alarms started to sound. They went off every hour or so after that. They were kind of creepy. It was dark out, we couldn’t see the ocean, and all we knew was that a tsunami MIGHT be coming. Every time they went off it re-emphasized that this could really end badly.
The next trip I took down to our car was…different. There was a line at the elevator. And the first couple of elevators were full. I was glad that I’d gotten a load to the car already. When I saw what other people were taking, I was REALLY glad that people hadn’t seen me taking 5 gallon jugs of water and coolers of food. Most just had a pillow, blanket, a beach chair, and a few odds and ends for sleeping in their car for the night. Nothing for if the tsunami actually hit and they needed to self-support for a few days.
It was so odd to me. I couldn’t understand why people would leave and head to higher ground unless they thought they were in danger. If they thought they were in danger, I couldn’t understand why they weren’t at least taking food and water with them. Most people where we were staying were on vacation, but they still had refrigerators. It was as if they figured that their only responsibility was to get their bodies to higher ground and someone else would take care of all of their needs.
At the same time, BIG lines started forming at gas stations and the locals quickly stripped the grocery store shelves of water and rice. We didn’t go anywhere near a gas station or grocery store and didn’t see this, but we heard about it the next day.
The first warning siren was our cue to bug out. We had a head start and a plan and didn’t want to get caught up in the swarm of unprepared people without a plan. This is exactly what I talk about in the SurviveInPlace.com course. If you have the ability to take QUICK action, before anyone else does, bugging out is a possibility, but if you can’t move until after the swarm does, you’re likely to get stuck.
One VERY interesting thing was that when our friends called us, they called on our room phone rather than our cell phone. The reason was that the cell towers were overloaded and neither cell communication nor texting were working. My iPhone only tries to send a message once. If it doesn’t go out, it returns an error message and doesn’t try again. Usually I carry an older backup phone that I can stick the SIM card in that doesn’t have this problem, but I didn’t have it on this trip. I won’t make this mistake again.
Another interesting thing was that I DID have internet access, even when my phone and texting didn’t work. At least with AT&T, they’re on a different network and THEY weren’t overloaded. So, I could have continued to email, tweet, and update Facebook to communicate with our group if I’d needed to. As it was, I was able to look at NOAA and USGS sites and stay abreast of aftershocks and wave sizes.
So, once we got loaded up, we transferred our sleeping boys into our rental, met up with our friends and some of their friends, and headed away from the coast to higher elevation. We were ahead of the main swarm, but people were already driving in a panic. Our drive was pretty quick and uneventful, and then we waited.
The next 4 hours were pretty boring. All we could do was wait. There was no preparing to do. Some people in our group walked around, some talked, my friend listened to the radio on his Kaito Voyager. My wife, the boys, and I set an alarm on my watch and got as much sleep as we could.
This is kind of how many post-disaster situations are. There’s a lot of boring waiting, mixed in with some extreme excitement. But oftentimes the most exhausting part is getting keyed up waiting for hours for the excitement to come. This is common in war too. New guys will oftentimes burn up all of their adrenaline getting excited anticipating battle and be ½ to ¾ spent by the time anything happens. Veterans will check to make sure someone is on watch and then conserve as much energy as possible until they actually have to spend it.
I’m big on triggers, so I set some triggers to know whether or not we were in danger or in the clear. One of my triggers was monitoring how big the tsunami was when it hit the Midway Islands, which are about 1400 miles northwest of Hawaii. Another was to see how big the tsunamis were that were hitting Alaska. And the final one was to see how big the tsunamis were that were hitting Kauai, which is the furthest northwest island of the main Hawaiian islands. This “trigger” concept can be applied to any disaster—you just have to figure out what’s most applicable in your situation.
So whenever the alert sirens went off or I woke up, I’d check the NOAA and USGS websites on my phone and see if there were any reports on Alaska or Midway. When they started coming in at 2-4.5 foot swells, I figured we were OK. Later reports from Kauai and Waikiki proved my assumption to be correct, so we went back to our rooms and got a few hours of comfortable sleep.
There were a few good lessons in all of this, besides the ones I’ve already mentioned.
The local media was set on having a disaster to report, and seemed quite disappointed when there wasn’t one. One of the reports basically said, “The swell in Waikiki is only about 2 feet, but we have reports of thousands dying when the tsunami hit Japan and we still have more on the way.” They just couldn’t let it go and wanted to keep people worried, dependent, and listening as long as possible. In a disaster, don’t trust the media to have your best interests as a priority. They need to fill time and keep you listening as long as possible.
A couple of the people who were in our group…who were friends of friends of our friends…decided that the best way to pass time was to talk—loudly. It reminded me of countless shelter experiences that I’ve been told about. Shelters are horrible places to be after a disaster. One of your most valuable tools is a clear mind and one of the best ways to keep a clear mind is to get rest. And it’s hard to get rest in a shelter when there are strangers moving about, talking, crying, coughing, arguing, or even laughing. If you can avoid shelters, do so.
Something that was in the back of my mind was the racial dynamic on the islands. MANY of the locals do not like mainlanders. There’s an us-vs.-them mentality here all of the time and a disaster would only make it more pronounced. If you think I’m joking, a local school told some friends of ours to get their kids out of “their” school because our friends are white and their kids didn’t belong–according to their teacher! It’s important to know if this dynamic exists where you are, how it effects you, and what you can do to mitigate the effects in the event of a disaster. Don’t get all judgmental or racist about it, or create a situation in your mind that doesn’t really exist. This dynamic has existed between groups since Bible times and is nothing to be surprised about.
When we drove back to our room, there were cars parked EVERYWHERE…mostly empty. To the point that there was barely room to drive in some places. It looked like people were just selfish and in a panic and decided to park their cars anywhere they could above where the tsunami might hit, regardless of how it effected others. This wasn’t surprising, but it was disappointing.
And, as always, it was nice to be prepared. We were able to act decisively and quickly because we knew we had our basic survival needs taken care of. Combine that with a solid relationship with God and we were even able to rest and sleep through the whole event.
The neat thing was that everything that we had in place to make this go as smoothly as it did is in the SurviveInPlace.com Urban Survival Course. It’s not rocket science…it’s just having a plan in place to be able to put together several components quickly and correctly. None of the components are very complex by themselves, it’s just the sheer number of simple components that you need to get right that trips people up. And that’s why I wrote the course.
The funny thing is that I don’t have a section on tsunamis in the course. I didn’t need to, because I focused on the fundamental components of preparedness and survival that are common to ALL natural and manmade disasters. If you haven’t gone through the course yet, I’d suggest that you head over to SurviveInPlace.com and check it out.
We’ll be talking more about fallout from the reactor meltdowns in a few days, but if you have any comments on that now, let us know by commenting below. Were you effected by the tsunami? Share your experience below.
God bless & stay safe!