On Dec. 26, 2004, Steven Eberlein was coming out of a shopping mall restroom in Sri Lanka when a local man approached him warning there had been a massive earthquake off the coast of Sumatra and that a tsunami was coming. Eberlein caught up with his wife, Lydia, and relayed the message.
“Her response was ‘This isn’t Japan; that’s just ridiculous.’”
The hours and days that followed changed Eberlein’s life and would ultimately decide his future.
Fourteen years ago, Eberlein, an Oregon high school graduate, class of 1996, knew nothing about the Cascadia Subduction Zone off Oregon’s coast. Scientists were aware it would likely one day trigger a mega earthquake here, but no one was really talking about it then. Tsunamis meant nothing to Eberlein that fateful day in Sri Lanka.
“We were blissfully unaware,” he said. “We just went about our day not believing it to be true. Even though we were right on the coast, we didn’t see the wave. The wave came from the east and we were on the west. Most importantly, there is a sizeable sea wall on the coast of Colombo.”
Lydia had left her phone in the apartment and it wasn’t until they returned and saw the mass of messages that they understood something was terribly wrong.
“We went to her office (she worked for a multi-national aid project and he as a teacher) together and found something on par with pandemonium,” he said. “Just wrapping our arms around what had happened was terrifying.”
“We heard of people running to take pictures of coral reef trees that had been exposed, of villagers trying to claim new beachfront property. They were planting flags and stakes believing they could claim and sell.”
Nearly 35,000 people died in the tsunami that washed over Sri Lanka. They died from ignorance, Eberlein said. Understandable, but nonetheless deadly, ignorance.
“Tsunamis don’t happen often,” Eberlein said. “They didn’t understand the receding coast was an absolute sign of a wave coming. They had a two- to two-and-a-half-hour warning. All of these hotels were unequipped and unable to give a warning that could have saved lives. This happened in the morning when a lot of people would have been awake. No one in Sri Lanka had to die. No one. Two and a-half hours is enough time to get the oldest person off the beach and a safe distance from the strike zone. You couldn’t ask for more time. It’s like standing in the middle of a highway with a truck driving up from Eugene and you’re standing in Portland and you somehow don’t get off the road in time. It’s unbelievable. The difference between life and death was just information. That’s all they needed. Just having enough of a system in place to tell people to get off the beach and it didn’t happen.”
Eberlein has since developed his own theories about why so many died.
“It takes time for a culture to adapt to the risk of any hazard,” he said. “Be it smoking cigarettes or tsunamis. Everyone knows Japan is the most culturally earthquake-ready country in the world. They learn from grandparents, from people they trust who experienced an event. It’s the trustworthiness and influence of a source close to you that can really lead you to change your behavior. It means that those who are preparing need to learn to talk about their preparedness.”
“Even having gone through the Boxing Day tsunami, even knowing about the Cascadia Subduction Zone, I still take my three little kids to the beach every single year,” he said. “The importance is planning. I know where high ground is; I’ve mapped on foot how to get from the beach to high ground. We drive the route with the kids and we review the signs of a tsunami.”
But he’s not so sure other Oregonians have gotten the message.
“I think that the average person sitting in Oregon today is like I was before the tsunami: unprepared, unaware, and not ready for a similar large event that will one day strike our own shores.”
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.
Today, Eberlein is on staff with the Red Cross and gives presentations around the state on earthquake and tsunami preparedness. He has also created a Tedx Talk on the subject — www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJoAF4oj_oM&feature=youtu.be. Take a look and consider participating in the upcoming 2018 Great Oregon Shakeout. http://shakeout.org/oregon, which includes two presentations at the Newport campus of Oregon Coast Community College on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 2 pm and again at 6 pm, 400 SE College Way.