James Michener's "Hawaii" was written in 1959; I read it when I was a teenager, then I gave it to my partner Chip to read when we
vacationed in Hawaii a few years ago. The novel covers Hawaiian history from the volcanic birth of the islands "millions upon millions of years ago" to its vote for statehood in the 1950s.
In all the 1,130 paperback pages, the section we both remember most clearly was the description in five pages about the 1948 tsunami that hit the Big Island. "She was swept past the last house in the village and on up into the valley's tight confines, the most dangerous spot in the entire island from which to fight a retreating tsunami, for now the water began to recede, slowly at first, then with speed and finally with uncontrollable
We visited that valley, which I was happy to leave, and the tsunami museum in Hilo, where several hundred people were killed by another earthquake-generated wave in 1960. We noticed loudspeakers attached to palm trees at the edge of Hawaiian beaches, part of the warning system. During our stay there, I kept an eye on the water's edge and made sure I had a plan to get to higher ground quickly.
Of course I've noticed that, as I've lived in various places, I've worried only about the things that are unfamiliar to a person raised in western Pennsylvania. I never gave much thought to the dangers from ice storms, rattlesnakes, flooding rivers or deer on the road. But coral snakes and hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes in Long Beach, tornados in Nebraska, scorpions in the Southwest, the ocean anywhere: these are scary.
It's worth pausing to note here that a woman was bitten by a coral snake which migrated north in a coat pocket to a clothing store near her northern home. A rare tornado hit my hometown when I was 18 years old. An earthquake shook northwest Pennsylvania in 1998. But at least there are no tidal waves in the Allegheny Hills.
When we got home from Hawaii, we checked out the potential for a tsunami here on the mainland. Certainly one could reach the West Coast, part of the Ring of Fire. But we found that an earthquake in the Canary Islands could send a wave across the Atlantic to our East Coast as well. Wouldn't want to be snorkeling off Bermuda if that happens, or for that matter, sitting on Revere Beach. Like resorts on the Indian Ocean, we don't have tsunami warnings either.
Unfamiliarity can also breed a false sense of security. Eastern Massachusetts sits on a fault line, and its earthquake is long overdue. This has not stopped anyone from building a nuclear power plant in
Seabrook, building on filled land or digging tunnels in Boston.
Mother Nature has a mean streak. Or less anthropomorphically, our planet is an amazing place, tamed only on the surface, with that domesticity subject to uncontrolled movements of earth, wind and fire. Talk about shock and awe! When we read that this one Indian Ocean quake
shook the Earth on its
axis, that the North Pole since last week is in a different place, what can we say but "wow!"
We exist here at sufferance, both as mankind and individual. From outer space can come a meteor, from inner space a cancer cell. A friend of mine scratched her finger with a Brillo pad and almost died of an infection. Medical science saved her. Other science is working on some of the other dangers. Human beings rush to help victims of natural disasters, and we Americans are doing our part to help victims of the Southeast Asia tsunami, both as a nation and as individuals sending money.
I think the scariest things are not natural disasters, but man-made disasters that make us angry as well as sorry. Though the physical damage to a body can be the same, it is worse to read about someone being harmed by a criminal, by a dictator, by a drunken driver than to read about someone who gets caught by a giant wave. Drought causes starvation, but man-made famine causes starvation without excuse. Negligence can cause floods and fire, and greed can keep U.N. relief from reaching victims. Some specimens of mankind can themselves be a natural disaster.
The tsunami loss of life and property is appalling only in the numbers of people affected; death and loss come to all of us, and that is why some of us empathize and want to help. But after we write the check to the Red Cross, we go about our business — because we never know how long we have before some disaster happens to us as well and we might as well make the most of what time we have.
Gertrude Stein wrote that, "Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is really very frightening." That's as good a thought as any to carry into the new year and the rest of our lives.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem
News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence
Journal and other newspapers.