Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tsunami Warning No. 2

For the second time in as many weeks, we looked out upon our reef and wondered if we would see that dreaded water recession that comes with a tsunami. Last week's earthquake in the Samoa Islands spurred a mere tsunami watch on Fiji. We packed some important belongings -- passports, money, stuffed animals, water filter -- in preparation for a run up the hill behind out house. The watch was soon called off though, serving as nothing more than a drill for us Drury's. Today's warning was one step up from that.

This morning at around 11:15, Geeda our caretaker came running onto our front porch to announce that a tsunami watch was in effect for Fiji after an 8.0 or so earthquake struck in Vanuatu. (They say these earthquakes -- Samoa, Indonesia and Vanuatu -- are unrelated but I have my doubts!) The resulting tsunami waves, if they arrived at all, were expected to hit at 11:40. Geeda offered to drive us up the hill behind a local resort. She'd then come down to get her family. (We made sure to tell her that her family should come first next time!)

Last week's drill was a good preparation so within the span of 5 minutes, we were able to pack our important things, put on some good shoes and head out the door. This time, in addition to the cuddlies, money, passports and water filter, we packed a laptop and charger, the Kindle Ben's camera, water and some "breakfast biscuits" the ubiquitous cracker of choice in the South Pacific.

We sped up the Hibiscus Highway like a bolt lightning in Geeda's little red Honda. Geeda dropped us off at the base of the resort, where we ran up the hill to safety. We ended up waiting out the warning -- which turned from "Moderate" to "High"at around noon -- at a partially-built trophy home overlooking the water. It was hot as all get up but the view was spectacular. It also would give us an eerie birds eye view of any tsunamis that might come in.

Then the waiting began. Folks in vehicles of all kinds kept streaming up the road toward safety. As we watched the reef for signs of receding and the horizon for signs of white, we listened to our neighbors talking on their "mobiles" in Hindi, trying to track down everyone they knew to make sure they were in the know. Geeda said that all of Savusavu was closed down and that everyone had climbed the hill above town. The same situation was going on in Suva and many other of the islands in the Fijian chain. Our hearts went out to the residents of Vanuatu as well as those living on the scores of little islands that make up our temporary home.

Being media-savvy Americans, I think we were all under the impression that the wave was coming that very second and that anyone caught unawares could be the subjects of those terrible stories and videos we saw in Phuket, Thailand in 2004 or, more recently, in Pago Pago, Samoa. We were not so much worried about our own safety as that of the neighborhood friends and acquaintances we've made over the past few weeks. We had no phone and no car, thus no way to make sure that they knew and had time to flee to higher ground. It was a terrible, helpless feeling.

As the clock ticked on and the waves didn't come, our fears grew smaller. More folks streamed up the hill and Geeda told us that she had warned a number of folks along the road as she went back to get her family. She said that no one was in Saruwaia's settlement to the east of us when she went by. Furthermore, we learned that Vodafone, the local cell service provide has a good tsunami warning system -- as you can see by the picture of Geeda's phone screen above. The radio and televisions also blasted the evacuation order. I guess that is the silver lining behind the tsunami events of the recent past.

After an hour and a half of waiting, the warning was called off and people started heading back down the hill. Life resumed its usual Fiji Time pace. Phew!


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