I shot out of bed like a jack-in-the-box. The jangling phone jolted me out of a deep sleep like a jackhammer biting a sidewalk. It was 6:36 a.m. on March 11.
“Just let the answering machine get it,” husband Chris mumbled. Something told me otherwise. I stumbled out of bed and grabbed the receiver with thoughts of throttling whoever was on the other end.
“Mom?” I recognized son Sam’s voice. “Mom!” he hollered again. “Um… uh… what’s up, Sam?”
Get outta the house, now!
“You gotta get outta the house, now!” Sam spent the night at a friend’s house and was phoning to tell us that a tsunami was imminent due to a huge earthquake in Japan.
I was wide awake in a heartbeat. “What are you talking about?”
I vaguely recalled Chris mentioning something about a major earthquake in Japan as he crept into bed the night before, but didn’t give it much thought. Then I remembered. We live on the coast of Washington State, a short walk from the water. Blue and white “Tsunami Evacuation Route” signs pepper the highways like chiles in salsa. Like most people, I never paid them much attention. Until March 11.
The first wave
“The first wave is supposed to hit just after 7:00 a.m.” Sam said. He and I conferred on a future meeting site and hung up. The entire conversation lasted less than a minute. I jostled Chris awake, ran upstairs to wake up sons Josiah (11) and Nathan (17), and flew into the kitchen. We had less than 20 minutes to get out.
Whether the tsunami alert was “for real” or not wasn’t open to debate. If it wasn’t and we evacuated, then it was “no harm, no foul” and little more than a delayed start to the school day. But if it was and we ignored it? We live just a few miles off the infamous Cascadia Subduction Zone. We weren’t going to risk it.
“Shall we take one car or two?” I queried Chris.
“Better take both.”
Dancing Through Your Head
“Why?” I was thinking about gas prices. Funny the things the dance through your head under pressure. “Because if a tsunami does hit, we’ll lose one.” Chris said. “Besides, we need both cars so you can take the dog.”
Oh, yeah. The dog.
Chris tuned in the local news as he threw on his clothes. We sped around the house, assembling “essentials.” But what’s “essential” in an emergency?
What should I take?
“Mom, what should I take?” Josiah appeared in the kitchen looking pale. My mind raced: What do you take – and for how long? A day or two? A week? A month? Deep breaths. Calm down. Think. Pray.
Light and fast headed the list. I directed the boys to quickly pack a couple changes of clothes and any valuables they could fit in their pockets. Josiah brought his sleeping bag. “Don’t bother with suitcases” I said, tossing plastic grocery bags. “Use these. And make sure you grab a jacket with a hood” I added as rain lanced leaden skies.
Besides toiletries, I threw together a couple T-shirts, a sweatshirt, and jeans. I also tossed soap, shampoo, toothpaste and brush in one bag and a washcloth and towels and the dog’s leash and bowl in another. Canned goods. A twelve-pack of toilet paper. Josiah’s pocketknife and compass. Paper plates and plastic utensils. (We forgot the hand sanitizer, prescription meds and can opener.) Nathan dashed to the basement for bottled water, extra blankets, the cooler, First Aid gear and our “emergency kit” which we put together when we lived in southern California, the land of earthquakes. The four of us and the dog were packed and out the door in 15 minutes.
Careening in a crunch
Curious the things that careen through one’s mind in a crunch. What should we bring? What to leave behind? Items that were too heavy or too big to bring were no-brainers. But what about family photos? The hundreds of books in our personal library? My mom’s silver service? The emerald earrings Chris gave me for our twenty-fifth anniversary? Sam’s baseball trophies? Nathan’s cross-country award? Shall I call my step-mom and sister in San Diego? Do we turn off the breaker box? Shut off the main gas valve?
One thing we hadn’t counted on as we charged out of town was that the gates to the local cemetery, the highest site in town, might be locked. They were. Plan B? Backtrack and hightail it inland to the local gun club, where we are members. It’s several miles inland at a slight elevation. The clubhouse itself abuts a hefty hill. No water is available, but it offers a sturdy roof, a wood-burning stove and enough firewood to last for weeks. Chris unlocked the gate. Our breath exhaled in frosty plumes as we entered the clubhouse and unloaded “breakfast:” hard-boiled eggs, cheese sticks and chocolate chip cookies.
I wondered what the people of Japan might eat next, and when. What “essentials” did they pack? What or whom was left behind?
Chris got a fire going and we huddled around the wood stove as the dog flopped on the floor at our feet. We monitored the local news by radio and then phoned the Emergency Management people who indicated an “all clear.”
As it turned out, our tsunami sprint was much ado about nothing. We returned home about 90 minutes after our mad dash out, feeling a bit sheepish. Most of our neighbors never even budged. “Consider this a practice run,” Chris chirped as we unloaded and went inside to brush our teeth.
What can’t be replaced
Viewing tsunami footage later, we tried to wrap our heads around the devastation. And couldn’t. We also decided that when it comes to tsunami alerts, discretion is the better part of valor, and some things matter more than others. At crunch time we grabbed each other, the dog, favorite books, hastily packed bags, food and water. I also snatched our wedding album, the kids’ baby books and photos of the grandparents. Some things can’t be replaced.