We were sitting a stone's throw from the ocean on a friend’s lanai in Kapaa along Kauai’s east coast when a stranger walked by. There were eight of us around a long table talking about the hand-made pizzas we’d cooked on the grill and tearing apart various politicians from this election and long-ago. It was shortly before 8:00. The sun had set, and the nearly full moon was already in the sky. One wine bottled had been emptied and another opened. I remember the clearness of the night sky as stars and planets started to pop out of the blanket of dark.
I only saw his silhouette, backlit by the moon. He passed the house and, then, turned back. I wouldn’t be able to identify him today. We had yet to dig into the plate of home-made vegan chocolate cupcakes I’d made for dessert. I’m surprised we even heard him. “You know we’re under a tsunami warning?” the stranger said more than asked.
“Tsunami?” someone at our table said. I think it was the guy who’d skewered a popular past president and praised a vilified one.
“Oh, I heard about that,” I said, remembering a Facebook post or a tweet or an email that I’d scrolled through on my iPhone as my husband drove into town. A 7.7 earthquake had struck off the coast of British Columbia. “We’re clear.”
“Not anymore,” the stranger said.
The doctor sitting next to me pulled out his iPhone and confirmed it. A tsunami had been generated, and it was estimated to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands at 10:28 p.m. Just two-and-a-half-hours away. In the past, we’d gotten more notice than that.
The doctor’s wife didn’t hesitate. “Let’s pack up and go to our house,” she said. They lived inland, far above the evacuation zone where we’d been merrily enjoying dinner and friends.
“Don’t forget the Domino’s,” someone else said. It might have been one of our hosts, who’d planned the evening. She loves to play games—board, card, you name it. A heated game of bocce had already been contested in the yard by the sea before dinner.
I begged off, heading home—also outside the evacuation zone—to set up OutriggerHawaii’s social media command center on my sofa and fill our bath tubs with water.
“How much gas do we have?” I asked my husband as we drove through Kapaa. I figured since we were so close that we might as well fill up the tank. Just in case. But the line for the gas station trailed clear to the edge of town. “That’ll teach a person to fill up when your gas tank drops below half,” I said, making me think of my grandfather who did just that.
Elsewhere, on the North Shore of Kauai, a helicopter hovered over Kalalau Valley along Napali Coast and someone on a loudspeaker instructed campers—two of whom were friends of mine—to head for higher ground.
About the time I powered on the television and two laptops in our living room, the sirens started. Then, the phone call from the County of Kauai came. I watched Waikiki turn into a ghost town. I watched as news people panned their cameras on empty grocery store shelves where bottled water, toilet paper and rice had resided mere hours before.
Three tsunami warnings in three years. We were getting good at this.
Or were we? Was I?
I didn’t fill the bath tub. I didn’t fill the five-gallon water jugs that we keep for just such emergencies. I hadn’t packed an “emergency preparedness kit” with food, batteries, toilet paper, important papers, spare clothing and dog food. Oh, sure, we had that stuff. But it was strewn around the house in closets and boxes, in the garage and backpacks, in the pantry and cabinets. I could not even say for sure exactly where to lay my hands on a working flashlight.
The tsunami rolled through Hawaii right on time, as predicted. But the waves—and resulting damage—proved smaller than feared. That’s a good thing, right?
The next morning, as I ate my cupcake—since it was breakfast, we’ll call it a muffin--from the night before, I read that an earthquake shook Los Angeles. Now, New York City floods and parts of 17 states have lost power due to the “Frankenstorm” known as Hurricane Sandy.
O.K. I get it. Mother Nature is powerful. It’s time to get my kit together.