When the phone rang in the wee hours last Tuesday, my thoughts (after ‘who the hell is calling at this hour?’) were that either someone died, it was a wrong number, or likeliest of all, it was a tsunami alert. Which raised the following question: Did I really need to get up?
I remember a similar morning years earlier, though this time the call came closer to midnight, and was from my editor — getting up to answer it wasn’t a question. The call brought news of the mega earthquake that struck Japan spawning a tsunami due to hit the Oregon Coast at about 7 the next morning. I set the alarm for 4 am and tried to get a few more hours of sleep. As my friends and family back east awoke and saw the news, my cell began buzzing with texts telling me to stay safe. It seemed this was indeed a very big deal. I dressed, grabbed my notebook and camera and headed out. Usually at that hour the highway is empty, the coast a dark, silent ghost town. But on that March morning, it looked like a Saturday in high season played out in the night. Lines of RVs, cars and pickups with trailered boats headed for higher ground, headlights trailing against the darkened sky. The Gleneden Beach fire station opened for those in need of shelter, radio announcers offered information on staying safe and at gas stations, attendants hurried from car to car, while drivers mingled as they awaited a full tank. I’m not sure now if we thought we needed to fuel up because we feared fuel wouldn’t be available after the tsunami or we were all just really running on empty. I don’t think any of us really knew what to expect, only that it was no time to take chances.
I’d written about the tsunami generated by the 1964 Alaska earthquake and knew of the children who were swept out to sea while camping at Beverly Beach. As I drove past the spot, I wondered how big the surge would be this time and wondered if it would cut off the highway, blocking my return to Newport. I remembered the devastation and lives lost from the ‘64 tsunami in Crescent City; Seaside, too. I thought about the scene an observer had described watching from a Neskowin cottage as the sea pulled so impossibly far out then roared back in a wall of water, and then did it all over again, and yet again. It was hard to imagine what the next hours would bring.
As the sky lightened, I headed back to Newport and the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse, the safest and best place to watch a tsunami I could think of. It seemed pretty much everyone else in town had the same idea and as we waited, the mood turned almost festive. As 7 am approached, we turned our attention to the sea and waited and watched and waited some more until it was agreed that it seemed the tsunami was a no show. As we would later learn, this was and wasn’t true. The harbor in Depoe Bay had taken a hard hit when the surge lifted a boat and slammed it back down on the dock. Further south, a young man was swept to his death from the mouth of the Klamath River, and the Port of Brookings was devastated. But those not near the water or on the beach didn’t see much of anything. Two years later, the state changed its inundation maps, and recommendation for responding to distant tsunamis. Today, all the hoopla over the March 2011 tsunami seems over the top, at best.
Last week when the phone disrupted my sleep, I knew that if it was a tsunami, it was a distant one, likely hours away. I knew that since I wasn’t on the beach or by a body of water, I was perfectly safe. I knew, too, that had it been a near-shore tsunami, the earthquake that generated it would have been my alert (and quite possibly my demise), and I’d no doubt be digging out from the havoc it wreaked. I knew, too, in a near-shore event, the tsunami would be mere minutes away. So, I grumbled a bit about being awakened, then happily returned to dreamland. There was, after all, nothing else for me to do. But I am grateful I had the information to make that decision, which leads me to one last question: Do you?
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.