Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Mother Earth wants us all the leave"* Tsunami experience: Part 1

The wee hours of Friday morning. Sirens blare. Heart quickens. Body from dead asleep to pinpoint alert in seconds. I knew this could happen, but it doesn’t make my pulse pound any slower. I feel the hubby—it’s too dark to see—rise next to me. “Here we go,” I say, not exactly sure what we’re in for. I’ve never been in a tsunami before.

Now I’m not going to pretend like this is some harrowing tale of survival. It’s more a tale of apprehension and anxiety with not much dramatic payoff. I wouldn’t even call it a near miss. The hubby and I are alive and safe. Not like so many people in Japan. Still, I think our tale is one worth telling...if only to keep my mind from churning over the events and the television images over and over again. Writing this down is my therapy.

But let me go back to the beginning, where many—certainly not all—stories start. French Polynesia, island of Moorea, Thursday night. Some combination of jetlag, sun exposure, pregnancy—and yes, even the hubby has been extra tired from me being pregnant—and extreme island relaxation has lulled us into slumber at an early hour.

I wake around 10:00 pm to find the movie we were watching has ended, the television screen a blank blue screen. I flip to CNN, one of three English-speaking channels we have. 8.9 earthquake, Japan. My first thought Damn, that’s strong. At the time, I didn’t know that it was the strongest recorded quake in Japanese history. My second thought This is not good. Not good at all. Even a country so prepared for quakes must surely suffer from one so massive.

CNN already has footage of not only the earthquake, but also of a devastating tsunami that hit northeastern Japan. A 10 meter wall of water. Tsunami warnings up for countries all across the Pacific. Then I think Uh, oh. We’re in the middle of the southern Pacific on a tiny island. What does that mean for us?

The last tsunami to hit French Polynesia after the earthquake in Chili in February 2010 was measured in inches. I had looked it up because after I had heard tsunamis had been in the area, I had wanted to make sure my favorite tropical location was still intact. The remote location and the surrounding coral reefs had kept French Polynesia safe, but that didn’t mean we would get through this one unscathed.

I watched the coverage for about 30 minutes, my anxiety level rising with each development. Footage from the CNN newsroom in Tokyo. Deep breaths. Stay calm. Footage of the wave pouring into northeastern Japan. Keep breathing. Calm, cleansing breaths. Tsunami warnings for Russia, Indonesia, Australia, Hawaii, among other countries and islands. French Polynesia isn’t specifically mentioned, but my attempts to stay calm are failing. I’m in a foreign land. On an exposed island. A tsunami may or may not be approaching.

Time to get another opinion on whether or not I’m overreacting. Time to wake the hubby. He doesn’t seem to share my apprehension. Maybe he’s still half asleep; maybe I am overreacting. This annoys me. He’s supposed to be the one to freak out, not calm, collected, take-everything-in-stride me!

“Should we call the front desk?” I ask. “Or go down there and see what’s going on?”

I’m trying to hide my growing fear, to play this as if I’m curious and just want to be prepared, but a million things are running through my head that I don’t say. Do they even know what is going on down at the front desk? Does Moorea have modern tracking equipment for tsunamis? Do they have adequate warning procedures? The water is so close to our room. Will we have to evacuate? What will happen to all our stuff? Will we even know it’s coming, the water rushing in unannounced and we’ll all drown? Was it a huge mistake to come here while pregnant, putting my unborn child at risk?

The hubby seems mildly concerned. His calm demeanor only proves to grate on my already agitated one. He hasn’t been watching the coverage as long as I have. He didn’t see the list of countries under tsunami warnings. He hasn’t let his mind wander to dark places and worse-case-scenarios.

There’s no way I’m sleeping until we find out more information from the resort. I tell the hubby this. He says, “Okay. Let’s walk down to the front desk.”

I’m not sure if he’s humoring me or if he’s also concerned. Either way, I’m relieved to be on my way learning more. The manager at the desk is well informed of the situation. He explains how there are buoys off the coast of the islands that will give us adequate warnings, if we will even need them. He is the picture of calm. He doesn’t think there’s much to worry about. I feel better.

We go back to the room to sleep. We have a solid five hours before the alarms will sound. Sorry to end on a cliffhanger, but I only have limited access to a computer here. You already know that we made it out of this and are safe, so really, I’m not leaving you in that much suspense. Caveat: we are back to our regularly scheduled vacation of enjoying tropical paradise. Massages on Monday!