Hawaii 6-6

Sun 15 October 2006

tags: Hawaii

Thank god for first-world construction codes.

This morning's earthquake, which occurred pretty much directly offshore from us, was several factors more severe than anything I experienced while living in California. I was in the city of San Francisco for the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and I compare that experience to a bumpy subway ride like Boston's "T." The experience of this was akin to what you experience on a wooden roller coaster.

Tina was literally two steps from the bed when the earthquake struck. The onset was like children running overhead in a house: patter-PATTER-Rumble-RUMBLE and then "Holy?" I rolled out of bed and grabbed the dog.

Cheyenne is recovering from an vestibular inner-ear problem and the shaking probably seemed like more of the same to her, but by the time I got in the doorframe, the shaking had reached a level quite unlike anything I experienced in 19 years living in California.

By the time I got into the doorway (and Tina across from me, in another), the sound of breaking glass rose to dominate the low-frequency rumble.

It was at that point that I experienced the Code Red adrenalin shot. The first time you parachute, even if you like jumping off high diving boards and riding roller-coasters, after 100' of drop or so, your body recognizes the unique parameters of your current situation and moves you into a different kind of awareness. I had that for the second half of the quake, which I suppose you'll tell me was only half-a-minute long. A lot of people talk about "time slowing" but for me, the experience is dominated by the complete shutdown of inner dialogue. A zen-like peace, I suppose, if zen-like peace involved being scared.

The thing that felt very different was the short-wavelength motion. I was holding my dog by the collar and she was going one way and I was going another. The "twistiness" of the shaking was, qualitatively, much different than anything I'd experienced plus, of course, the severity of the shaking was higher. I have a good sense of balance and I was almost thrown off my feet.

After the shaking was gone for a few seconds, I let the dog go and we began to assess the damage, which was disheartening. Dozens of pictures fell, including a heavy oil painting whose hanging wire was snapped by the jolting. Most of the appliances "walked" -- the TV was an inch from toppling, the stove had moved 5 inches, the refrigerator had shifted. There was broken glass and ceramic everywhere -- vases, mirrors, the shelves and contents of our tiki bar, and dozens of sentimental tchotchkes. Several things broke because something heavier fell on top of them -- a couple sculptures, my SLR camera, a keyboard. Bookshelves collapsed, others were emptied.

That's when the aftershock (or, as they're saying now, a separate 5.8 earthquake) hit. This one felt much more like a "normal" big earthquake. After getting out from the doorframes from that, we heard our neighbor's children screaming.

Their mother was working and their dad had run out to grab breakfast. He'd left his kids, age 4 to 8, watching "Left Behind" -- a movie about The Rapture. Somehow I think that their Code Red adrenalin level put mine to shame. So we looked after them until their Dad rushed home a few minutes later.


I am frankly astonished that our house wasn't structurally damaged. The miracle of wood, I guess. Our house was flexing, boy -- I could see it. I now viscerally understand what led to the devastation in places like Aremenia and Iran.

One of our stone retaining walls shifted significantly and another partially collapsed. The composition of the Big Island is essentially jagged lava rock in all sizes -- the island is so young and amorphous and the way that lava forms is such that the geology hasn't sorted itself out. This is one of the reasons why the images you're seeing from the news of collapsed rock walls and slides and so forth is quite misleading: it's always like that. There are significant slides and slumpages in every rain and while I don't mean to discount that this event was major, the types of rock falls that are making national news are not all that unusual here.


After a few hours passed, we went out to get ice. We live above "Mamalahoa Highway," which is a rural two-lane road and, as it turns out, one of the rockfalls which is making national news is about 100 yards away. We went down to Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway, which runs by the airport and, by 11, the triathletes in town for next week's IronMan were thick on the road.

We were surprised, but the power was on along the highway and we had no problem buying 30 pounds of ice, some coffee, and some water.

Ironically, it's a particularly lovely day here. The other islands in the state, all of which are suffering blackouts presumably related to the earthquake, have the additional misery of heavy rains.


True to form, we heard several rumors about this structure's roof collapsing and that place being destroyed and these all turned out to be exaggerations. One thing that's getting extensive coverage on the news is the structural damage to the local hospital. I probably shouldn't say anything, since getting Federal funds to pay for a new hospital would be awesome, but the condition of that hospital was a local disgrace before this morning.

Power came back on at 1 in the afternoon and I received yet another education in the way of TV news. Just as in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when the media concentrated on the (relatively minor) damage to San Francisco when in fact Santa Cruz and Watsonville were devastated, radio and TV coverage seemed to cover the power outages throughout the state.

As for the local reports they're putting on the airwaves, I admit that shaking varies from place to place and it's possible that someone another twenty miles down the road or over in Oahu had a worse experience than we did, but I think it's even more likely that there's a knowing complicitness between the eye-witnesses and the media about what makes good TV -- "emphasize the terror, emphasize the close call, use words like 'devastation' and 'war zone'" 

(I just had a flashback to the movie "Jaws" and the mayor saying "But as you can see, it's a beautiful day..." just as Alex Kintner is paddling out on his inflatable raft...)


Oh, did I mention the waterspout that we had Friday?

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