Learning from disaster

This holiday season, we were horrified witnesses to the most awful natural disaster we will, God willing, ever see in our lifetimes. You think it’s an empty maxim when they say, "Never turn your back on the sea"? Take a look at the remnants of Banda Aceh.

The images of small children standing on the sand watching these waves roll towards them fill me with fear – and not a small bit of anger. Who keeps filming while two four-year-olds cling for their lives to a floating car? And the group of kids who just stand there cheering the wave? It’s obvious that none of these people had any clue about what they were experiencing.

This event locked me to my television in a way that Sept. 11 and the Iraq war didn’t touch. I’ve been a tsunami nut since I was a little kid, collecting the (until now) scant photographic documentation of these waves, poring over "runup" charts, fantasizing about coastal slump. So this week, rather than bitching about the "stinginess" of donor nations, or railing against the shortsightedness of the total lack of a warning system in the area (by the way, there isn’t one in the Atlantic either), the Sensible Insurgent’s going to give you a little lesson in tsunami awareness.

If you feel an earthquake by the ocean that makes it hard to stand, go to high ground immediately. If the Cascade Subduction Zone snaps, Cannon Beach could be seeing waves in as little as 30 minutes.

If you see the waters receding rapidly from the shore, do not collect fish. No joke, people, turn around and run for higher ground, as this is the most recognizable sign that a tsunami is imminent. The sad fact is that each tsunami story has uneducated people rushing down to see the spectacle of the exposed seabed. Don’t do it. The rule of thumb is that if you can see the wave, it’s too late to avoid it – err on the side of caution, as there is no predicting the size of a tsunami.

Tsunami are not "tidal waves." Tidal waves do exist, most notably in the form of tidal "bores," such as on the Seine in France, the Severn in England, and the Qiantang in China, but they are not the same thing.

Tsunami are often a series of waves, rather than one large wave. Over the course of a 12-hour period several waves of varying heights can come ashore. There is no way to predict which wave will be the largest, or the last. Stay away from low-lying areas until the authorities inform you it’s safe to return.

Mainly, it just pays to remain alert if you’re at the seashore, particularly here in Oregon, with dangerously cold water, strong currents, and "sneaker" waves (not a myth: a friend from high school drowned off the South Jetty in Florence after being struck by one). Keep your wits about you and you’ll be much better off.

If you’d like to make a financial contribution to the relief effort in South Asia, contact me at my email address below, and I’ll be happy to direct you to reputable charitable organizations who will get your funds to the people on the ground who need it the most.

Riggs Fulmer can be reached at [email protected].