Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Me
by ronrichmond | on February 14, 2012
Earthquakes Love Me
They really do!
They follow me around!
I’ve followed them too!
Since my first earthquake in 1953 (see my blog: “St Thomas Primary School Lautoka Fiji”).
Earthquake swallows me up
Just kidding (this time)!
But that’s exactly the fear I had in my very first earthquake.
I was only 10 years old.
A friend and I were sitting in a ditch between 2 schools at lunch time.
When the earthquake began.
It was strong. It shook very hard. It shook us up.
We had absolutely no idea what it was.
Hadn’t even learnt the word “earthquake” in school yet.
So it really scared us.
We thought the ditch would open up and swallow us up.
But it didn’t.
And why did we have that silly thought of being swallowed up?
When we had never ever experienced an earthquake before.
But there was more.
There was a tsunami.
Not in Lautoka, but in the capital city, Suva.
It killed a few people and damaged the waterfront.
This was a new experience for me.
Geology was going to be my career.
1961 Hawaii tsunami
In January 1962 I start geology studies at the University of Hawaii.
My first roommate is from the island of Hawaii.
Where they had a terrible tsunami in 1961
which killed a lot of people.
My roommate helped with the cleanup.
He talked about the stench of the dead.
It was terrible.
1964 Alaska tsunami
I’m with a friend in a borrowed beach house.
I jump up in the middle of the night and say: “Tsunami”.
She says: “You’re mad”.
Then we hear the sirens go off for a tsunami warning.
We get out of there in a hurry to the higher grounds of the university.
But the tsunami does not hit Honolulu.
1968 Earthquakes really do follow me!
I’m in Tokyo Japan with a meeting scheduled with scientists at the Earthquake Research Institute the next morning.
we experience an 8.2 magnitude earthquake.
We stop the car.
People are running helter skelter.
They are scared.
But there is no damage because the earthquake is further offshore.
1968 Manila earthquake damage
We are spending a few days with my (then) wife’s grandmother.
She doesn’t particularly like me.
Because her granddaughter should not have married a cannibal from Fiji.
In the middle of the night she shakes me: “Ron, Ron wake up”
I wake up, feel the house shaking, say “Oh, it’s only an earthquake” and go back to sleep.
She shakes me again: “But Lola (grandmother) is afraid”.
So I get up, calm them down, turn on the radio, and tell them to be ready for another shake any moment.
In a couple of minutes, there is an aftershock. Not as bad as the original.
Lola looks at her granddaughter and says: “How did he know that?”
Suddenly I might be acceptable as a grandson-in-law!
But there was considerable damage in Manila.
August 1968, Alice Springs, Australia
I’m travelling alone, visiting mines in the Northern Territory, Australia.
I spend one night in Alice Springs.
They have a magnitude 4 earthquake.
Just a nice little tremor.
September 1968, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea
I’m sleeping in this wooden guest house, before visiting the Geological Survey next morning.
There’s a honeymooning couple in the next room.
My bed starts shaking in a certain direction (at 10pm)
I just wish the couple next door would get over it quickly so I can sleep.
Fortunately it only lasts a few seconds. That was awfully quick!
Next morning the Geological Survey Head tells me there was an earthquake overnight.
They’ve had reports from outlying areas, but none from Rabaul.
I’m able to give them an accurate geologist’s report on the direction of the shaking.
1976 Suva Fiji earthquake
I’m the Director of Mines and my office is on a hill a few miles out of the city.
I have a beautiful view of the reef in the distance, and the waves crashing on it.
About noon we suddenly feel a strong earthquake.
The building is swaying. We’re only on the second floor.
Some geologists run into the room to discuss the earthquake.
We all look towards the reef.
I don’t see the waves crashing on the reef.
I remember the 1953 earthquake and the tsunami that hit Suva.
Why does the sea look so calm? What happened to the reef?
What does that mean?
Then the phone rings.
It’s Radio Fiji.
They want my comments on the earthquake already.
Only seconds have passed, but every second is vital in a local earthquake.
I tell them to shut up and start the recording because I’ve decided to call a tsunami warning immediately.
They record my tsunami warning and play it immediately on the radio.
It advises of the strong local earthquake and the possibility of a tsunami.
It advises residents of the low-lying coastal areas to go to higher ground immediately.
Some geologists drive down towards the coast to give me first hand reports on any water movement.
They call back in 30 minutes to say there has been no water movement at all.
The phones are still ringing. Calls come in from Radio Australia and some other commercial stations.
I tell them I called a tsunami warning, but fortunately, no tsunami occurred.
That night the Minister for Mines says they were in a cabinet meeting when I called the tsunami warning.
He told the Prime Minister that he had every faith in my decisions and backed me all the way.
Next morning, in the Fiji Times newspaper headlines, the Police Commissioner blasts me for calling the tsunami warning. He explains that the protocol is that all tsunami warnings are called by the Tsunami Warning Centre in Honolulu and relayed to him (the Commissioner) and he relays that to the people if necessary.
The Fiji Times never asked for my comments and the Commissioner does not understand the difference between long range tsunamis (with 20 hour warning times) and locally generated tsunamis with only minutes to get to safety.
Fortunately, the Prime Minister steps into the fray and puts out a statement totally backing my action and saying he was glad that someone in government had the presence of mind and took the initiative to call a warning based on his own expertise, even if there were no protocols in place for this situation. He also explained that he was a young District Officer in Suva when the 1953 earthquake and tsunami occurred and he experienced first hand the timing and the damage caused by the local earthquake and tsunami.
Earthquakes still haunt me
Even after I migrated to Australia in 1981 and moved to the petroleum exploration field earthquakes and tsunamis were never too far from me.
In 1983 I was invited by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of Unesco to be part of 3 person group of experts to visit the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Fiji to advise on the tsunami warning requirements. One thing I noted during this visit is that in places like Indonesia and the Philippines they have frequent local earthquakes with tsunamis that can hit the islands within 15 to 30 minutes. No warning system can really handle this adequately. Local education and preparedness is critical.
I felt numb just watching the TV footage of the 2004 Boxing Day Aceh earthquake and tsunami which devastated the huge area from Indonesia to Thailand to India to the east African coast.
Add to that the continuing crises being caused by the Christchurch New Zealand earthquakes over the last year, and you have a Pacific Ring of Fire that is remaining very very active.
The 2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Catastrophe
We can prepare for the worst situations, but we can never adequately prepare for the worse than expected situation. That is what happened in that recent earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan.
I still have visions of that lady village official in the Sendai area in March 2011, with her megaphone in her hand, yelling at the villagers to evacuate and run up the hill. She did not stop until the wave picked her up and swept her away.
Japan has experienced many tsunami over historical time, and they are organized to the village level. But this earthquake and tsunami was bigger than anything they had expected.
It was a monumental catastrophe for Japan.
But other countries can learn from their experience.
Especially those that have frequent local earthquakes and tsunamis.
Like Indonesia and the Philippines.
But we can only blog about the information that we know.
We can only hope that people will learn, blog by blog, how to organize themselves
To handle most catastrophes.
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