Warm sunlight filled the room as I tossed around in a sleepy haze. The vibrating cell phone had stirred me from slumber. The text message read, “Are you awake? There is a tsunami warning!”. Guess we won’t be gong to the beach on our day off.
Thanks to my old job I’ve been fortunate, or is that unfortunate, enough to live out several types of natural disasters. Nothing on the international scale, but definitely serious enough to those involved. Tornadoes, blizzards and a hurricane sound exciting. I even slept though an earthquake once (I was not on the clock). But it is the more mundane sounding ones that can be the worst. Ice storm? Trees through houses, tangled power lines that resemble spider webs; ice can cause a lot of havoc. And when it melts? Lets just say chunks of ice falling from a 1,000 foot TV tower can cause some real damage around the workplace. Then there are floods. When it comes to natural disasters flooding is the deadliest of them all. Rivers spilling out of their banks, flooded basements, people swept away in angry flood waters; I’ve come to understand that you can’t underestimate flood water. It is the mother of all natural disasters, no matter how it is caused.
Which brings me back around to that tsunami warning. We’re living about 2 km from the beach, which lies on a fairly sheltered bay. OK, probably won’t get swept away in a wall of water. But Gisborne also lies at the confluence of several rivers. We’re about a block from one of them, the Taruheru. Hmmmm. What to do? Jill quickly hopped up and turned on the TV. Nothing on any of the free to air channels. Nothing. Kiwi-land isn’t quite a 24 / 7 cable news driven society. Luckily New Zealand’s version of public radio would inform us of our fate. The tsunami should reach Gisborne at eight minutes to nine. It was 8:48.
We had heard the news of the earthquake in Chile and the impact of the tsunami on the outlying islands before we turned in. Jill wondered aloud if the tsunami might roll all the way here, on the other side of the South Pacific. “I dunno?”, I sleepily responded. “Does it work like that?” Turns out it does. The whole east coast was under a tsunami warning and the East Cape was sticking out like a sore thumb waiting to get hit. What to do? What to do? These sorts of situations didn’t come up too often growing up in a land locked state.
There had been self evacuations along the beach. Basically police and emergency officials had gone door to door and asked people to leave. No one came knocking on our door. We could probably hang out in our flat and be fine. Or we could go up on Kaiti Hill to see if we could catch the tsunami rolling in. After all if we couldn’t go to the beach to surf at least we could go watch it get swept away by a giant wave. Turns out heaps of other people had the same idea. Many were from the evacuated areas along the beach, including the coastal campground. Others, like us, were up there just in case. There for the show.
And what a show it was. No there wasn’t a giant wave of water blasting on shore. Thank goodness. Mostly it was strange tidal shifts. Sitting on the hill with some locals who could point out some of the oddities, we saw the tide go lower than its usual low. Only to surge back in over the course of a 10 or 15 minutes. The changing tides sucked muddy water out of the river creating this large brown stain in the otherwise normal looking bay. Turns out these tidal fluctuations can last for hours, with the possibility of a the waves bunching up to crate larger surges.
So for an hour or so we watched the ocean rise and fall. We watched the boats cruise around at the mouth of the bay, they left the harbor for the safety of the deep open water. We listened to people talk excitedly about seeing parts of the sea wall not seen in years. We saw large trees and branches float up river. We heard the police through their megaphones shooing people off the beach. Big doings in little Gisborne. Then we got tired, remember we were working until about 2:30 in the morning, and we went back home to bed.