Blog: The real tsunami was on land at the check-out counters

Colleen Sanders
Boats out at sunset at Port Locke, Hawaii Kai. Photo by Ashlee Meyer

On a Boat
with Colleen Sanders

I had owned my boat for exactly two months when the earthquake hit Chile. So needless to say, when I woke to sirens sounding, I was impressionable. My dock-neighbor shrugged when I asked if we were going to die; then he went back to bed. Lucky for me I got to the stores early enough to buy emergency water, peanut butter, and helium balloons reading “God loves you” before the rest of the island woke up.

Down at the docks, the mood was calm, but split. Half were gearing up to meet the wave head-on, the other half were banking on insurance. Despite a burning desire to get my money’s worth on a policy, the idea of abandoning my newly-renovated fiberglass bullet to the whitewater bearclaws of the tsunami I’d seen on TV was too American in all the wrong ways. So I decided to sail out.

Meanwhile, the harbor was busier than I’d ever seen it—boats I’d thought were abandoned were hoisting sail, people were loading up on water and tying fishing line. Still, if it were a silent movie, you’d never have been able to tell there was an incumbent natural disaster. Everyone was calm, procedural, friendly. More than one person offered fresh tie lines, rides out, tools, food, radio, help untying. Some simply canvassed the dock asking what anybody needed. When my motor wouldn’t start, a fishing boat offered me a tow-out, which I took, and joined the trolling procession of boats a few miles out.

There were about 25 of us out on the water, just biding our time and listening to the radio. It was comforting to not be alone, to be in the company of people who had done this many times before, and that, as the hours progressed, there was “no news” to report. With all the international tracking technology in place, how could they not know where the wave was?

And why weren’t the newscasters reporting news from Chile, where I learned only after I returned to shore and got on my computer: apartment buildings, hospitals collapsing, fires, rioting, people trapped in rubble. Yes, we needed to know everything there was to know about the incoming wave the second it was known; however, there was a whole lot of down time during those hours out at sea that could have been used to report on Chile.

When I reconvened with my friends landlocked during the tsunami watch, I was regaled of stories about long lineups at WalMart and TV news anchors literally jumping out of their chairs with suspense. Out at sea, the water had been calm as any other day, the weather hadn’t balked, most of the boats spent the day sailing and playing. It seems this tsunami, in Hawaii at least, occurred predominantly on land.

Which is good because no one got hurt. However, it was a double-edged wave—because Hawaii is used to tsunami warnings, they knew how to handle it and the chances of people getting hurt were ameliorated. On the other side, because Hawaii is used to tsunami warnings, people may be less inclined to take them seriously. The “hype” may be what people need to take the appropriate safety precautions in a potential natural disaster (infamous swimming Waikiki “schmuck” exempted).

And no hype is complete without an aftermath. But in the absence of a wave, the aftermath should be a reflection on what we just did, because the more you think about it, the less you can say we were prepared for a state-wide emergency.

The WalMart lineups during the tsunami crunch actually reveal to us our greatest vulnerability: We are foodless. Should our umbilical to the mainland be cut off, the first world order of our island chain will quickly collapse. In the sustainability world, this is mantra, and in the mainstream world, this is still not news. But my fear is that it’s going to take a larger disaster for it to hit home that we need to make the necessary land use and economic reforms to shift the focus of the economy of Hawaii to food production and internal stability.

Which, of course, happens one tomato at a time. If you’re lucky enough to have a yard, imagine a small garden in the corner, some time well spent in the soil, and fresh vegetables to offset grocery costs. Or maybe the input-output cost ratio discourages you from planting your own garden, in which case the need for community gardens offsets the limits of private property. If we want more land delegated for food production, put pressure on legislators, local representatives, and neighborhood board officials. It’s going to take a long time and a concerted effort, or an enormous disaster to steer Hawaii into a less dependent state.