In The Suburbs / A horror hard to even imagine
Replaying the horrors of the tsunami in Japan last week was like watching computer-generated scenes from some apocalyptic sci-fi film.
But this was a shuddering reality, with hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.
Little more than a half hour after a devastating 8.9-point earthquake struck, warnings sounded in coastal communities that it had triggered a deadly wave. My eyes widened as I watched video footage of the ugly brown water that built to a 50- or 60-foot wave, surging over beaches and protective barriers, sweeping boats and cars aside like toys, upending buildings in its way and engulfing thousands of people.
The mayor of Minamisanriku, Japan, according to the New York Times, "described a wall of frothing brown water that tore through [his] town of more than 17,000 so fast that few could escape. Town officials say as many as 10,000 people may have been swallowed by the sea."
One villager, who owned a laundry and rushed back to his shop because he worried that he'd left his iron on, saw that the wave was building about a half mile away in a bay. The man jumped into his car, and by the time he started the car, the wave was almost upon him. He barely survived, driving about 45 miles an hour to higher ground, the wave "rising in his rearview mirror" all the way.
Among the most helpless victims were the elderly. According to the New York Times, "In the hamlet of Yuriage, the search for survivors was turning into a search for bodies. And most of those bodies were old -- too old to have outrun the tsunami."
One young man reflected about picking up broken cups after the earthquake when he heard screams of tsunami and sirens. As he rushed his mother to safety, amidst snarled traffic, he realized that his elderly father was still in their home. When he arrived at the house, he saw his father, who had a bad leg, literally crawling onto a balcony that was high enough above the water and reaching safety. That man was one of the lucky ones. Other elderly victims weren't as fortunate.
This one burst of mother nature's power, lasting no more than a few minutes, annihilated entire Japanese coastal cities. The devastation brought tears to my eyes, and my heart ached for the tens of thousands of people injured or lost.
According to The Times, the tsunami was channeled and compressed in a six-mile inlet in Kesennuma until it exploded in a 50-foot-high wave. "The scope of the destruction, officials say, far exceeded the worst-case models in experts' tsunami projections. The wave completely leveled fishing villages and residential enclaves up and down the sound, ravaged the town's sewage treatment plan and destroyed more than 1.5 miles of shops and apartments on its outskirts.
Until a few years ago, I had never heard the word "tsunami," but that changed one morning over the Christmas holidays when a tsunami, triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, crashed through a resort town, killing hundreds and driving others to high ground.
Like this time, I remember sitting almost transfixed, as I watched the building wave cross the beaches and move like a locomotive, destroying hotels and resorts and anything else in its path. The dark water looked almost like glistening fingers as it swallowed streets and driveways.
But watching that water snatch human beings like stick figures, snuffing them out in an instant was a terribly painful experience. First there were hotel balconies and taller buildings covered with innocent bystanders gawking at the waves as they came across the sand and onto concrete. Then, minutes later, those same bystanders were either gone or were running for their lives.
While I couldn't identify with the horror stories I've been watching, I've tried to envision what that moment of truth must be like for victims and survivors just before the wave hits. Tsunamis happen so fast that I have to assume that daredevils must be standing on the shore waiting to challenge the surging wave. Others, like myself, who hardly fall into the daredevil category, would be running or driving to the highest point reachable. I just can't imagine the horror of running for my life as a killer wave descended.
Ironically, I heard from a cousin of my wife's that his brother and sister-in-law were in Hawaii and were immediately evacuated to a mountain above their Four Seasons Hotel. As the smaller-than-Japan's wave destroyed the area below, the cousins were safe above, despite the fact that their dream vacation had been derailed. When they returned to the base of the mountain, they found their hotel trashed by the water.
The tsunami also reminded me of a recent movie, "Hereafter", which involved a young French woman who had been vacationing in Indonesia and was caught off guard by the massive wave while shopping. Emerging from her near-death experience, she decided to do research and write a book. It occurred to me, since the movie had gone nowhere when it was in the theaters, the film could have been re-released this past weekend and probably would have been a box-office success.
I hope that over a long period of time, these towns will be able to rebuild. But, of course, nothing can replace the loss of life and gutting of families who have been ripped apart by the water and the earthquake.
Steven Gaynes' In The Suburbs column appears each Friday in the Fairfield Citizen. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.