One thing seems to be universally true; the Earth does move under our feet. I say universal because no matter where we live, it seems that nature can slap us down in one way or the other at almost any time. I have often thought about it when living in places prone to seismic and meteorologic dangers. People who live near the sea suffer hurricanes and tsunamis. Folks along rives have floods. Prairie inhabitants have tornadoes. And let's face it – we have all experienced the freaky weather that causes droughts, blizzards, and all manner of mayhem. And let's not forget volcanoes!
When the topic of natural disasters comes up, everybody has a story. Some are more harrowing than others. But I have had a few near misses, so I will tell you of them. Growing up in bucolic western Oregon, I observed that it is not a place where people are used to disasters. For instance, we were unprepared for the freak typhoon named Frieda that slammed ashore in the Pacific Northwest on October 12th, 1962. Thereafter referred to as "The Columbus Day Storm," it has always been Portland's disaster reference. p>
A few years later, the big 9.3 Anchorage Alaska earthquake of 1964 was likely the strongest to ever hit the USA in recorded history. As with a lot of such things, my relationship to it was tangential. Later, when I traveled a lot, I met people from all over the world with incredible accounts. My collection of secondhand stories increased a lot. I have always tried to tell of my own experiences and not simply repeat those of others; but during my preaching days, I learned that the key to a good sermon was a good story. So, like all preachers, I collected stories of the types of things that interest people. And, in part, because everyone can relate to Mother Nature in one way or another, I have always been fascinated with natural phenomena.
All in all, I managed to get through childhood without much trauma ... well, except for the first real earthquake that I felt personally in Mexico City, where I was a student at the time. It was a serious shock, and the famous Freedom Angel on its high column on the Paseo de la Reforma came crashing down. That was such an interesting and exciting time of spacewalks and new scientific discoveries about our earth. The concept of tectonics was fairly new, and we were learning that we are all more or less adrift on a sea of magma, riding along helplessly on plates that are in constant collision. Earthquakes are not sent by gods to punish poor behavior by mankind, but, rather, by massive geologic forces. And when they happen, all we can do is to hold onto something.
Speaking of holding onto something – my next earthquake was in the Philippines, another seismic hot spot. I was sitting alone in a small restaurant owned by friends, and waiting for an appointment, when the earth began to shake. I forgot everything else as the walls and floors began to buckle. I can't remember all that came next, but, to this day, I recall the sound of the nails being pulled out of the wooden walls as if with a claw hammer.
The Philippines is triply unlucky. Not only do they have earthquakes and volcanoes – they have typhoons. In years gone by, these massive Pacific windstorms used to come upon the islands, without warning. Like their violent cousins, tornadoes, they have been the stuff of legends throughout human time. But, nowadays they don't just "hit" like tornadoes and earthquakes; you always know when they are coming, and follow their progress daily in the newspapers and on nightly television news broadcasts. Tracking the multiple oncoming storms is of necessity a way of life for people in Asia, between May and October. I was no exception, paying rapt attention to the forward march of each approaching storm, wondering if it was going to make landfall or miss us, maybe hitting Taiwan or Japan further north. Like their Atlantic counterparts, the hurricanes, typhoons come in all shapes and sizes. And they all choose different paths. One learns soon enough that most will be near or complete misses. That is a bad thing, as one tends to become complacent. And when the "big one" does hit – and it always does – it's not unusual to be caught off-guard.
Aring is the name of the storm I remember most. It hit Manila head-on like a freight train, and we were scared for our lives. Hiding under the staircase with pillows, blankets, and sofa cushions, we held our heads down and prayed. My deepest fear was that the roof, with its wide eaves, would not hold and would be torn away. Many homes in our neighborhood were not so lucky.
The next morning, without electricity or a telephone, we ventured out but did not get far. Along with high winds comes high water, and we were totally cut off for days from our friends and coworkers. We were used to frequently being without power, so candles were the order of the day. I wrote some stories and painted. Later, when we all got together to compare notes, I learned that my boss at the time had been trapped in his car in deep water for the first night.
When our first big typhoon hit us in Hong Kong, we were well-seasoned enough to know what to do. Living high and exposed, I knew that we were a target, so I took all the artwork off the walls, disassembled the stereo, and brought everything that could not be nailed down, into the hall of our flat. We were lucky because, with all the doors tightly closed, we had no exposure to flying glass should a window give way. Despite all the roaring and shaking, we felt safe and sound. Unlike most of Asia, where the power and telephone lines were overhead, Hong Kong's infrastructure was all underground. So, we could actually talk on the phone during the height of a number ten typhoon! Amazing.
Then the water started coming in. And not just a little, but a lot. We tried towels under the door, but to no avail. I had to do the unthinkable, and go upstairs onto our flat roof to clear the debris from the drains. I crawled to the drains in the climbing water. Being soaked already, getting wet was the least of my worries. And as much as I loved that flat and enjoyed lying out in the sun on the roof‑deck, I never forgot henceforth to always clear the drains whenever a typhoon was even hinted.
That was typhoon Rose, the worst storm since Wanda. And let me tell you – the oldtimers never let us forget that Wanda was worse. But, when I went out days later to photograph the ship that had been blown up onto the Wan Chai Ferry pier, I wasn't so sure. Still, as with Frieda, the Columbus Day storm, we may have exaggerated this storm a bit over the years. I mean, we all love to tell stories, and the fish seems to get bigger with every telling. No wonder the Bible is so full of outlandish tales of massive battles, wondrous talking donkeys, and the sun standing still. We are all human, aren't we?
I realize that we all want to be the heroes of our own stories. But, I will admit to being absent from my last memorable natural disaster, the 1989 Loma Preata earthquake in San Francisco. I was 200 miles away, watching the whole thing on CNN on a beautiful late afternoon in Lake Tahoe. Since we have all seen those images a million times, I will not seek to describe them again. But, since I moved to that city only a few months later, the whole experience was very close to the surface in the minds of all San Franciscans. And everybody had a personal story. Since the quake hit at five in the afternoon and the power went out everywhere immediately, everyone in town had to make it home on foot in the gathering darkness, stopping only occasionally to learn of events from others stuck in their automobiles along the way, who were listening on their car radios.
The stories are myriad. Since the power was out, television feeds were black in the entire Bay Area. Flashlights, candles, and bottled water were crucial. Television was useless. How hard it is for us who are accustomed to our world of electric everything, running water, and high-speed transport, to suddenly be back in the Middle Ages. But the irony of all this was that while all of my friends in San Francisco were stumbling around in the dark, I watched the whole thing live on television, tucked into my tidy little condo 200 miles away at Lake Tahoe.