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March 29, 2005

Long Night

Moira and I had stayed late at the Volunteer Center last night, working on various projects (I have a new one, but more on that another day). Scott, who runs the boatyard project, gave us a lift home since it's hard to find a hitch after 11pm. Moira crashes with us in our hotel room when she's in town.

I grabbed a quick shower to get all the bug juice off, and Moira got a late call on her cell. It sounded like bad news, she said Oh. Okay. very seriously as though someone had just died. Then she turned on the TV, explaining there had been an earthquake in Sumatra of 8.2 (which later was revised to 8.7).

We all knew what that meant. About a week and a half ago, an earthquake in Indonesia had sent all of the traumatized and superstitious Thai people into the hills, fearing another 33-foot wave. But that was in the afternoon. It was after midnight now, and we were staring at the CNN graphic lamely trying to figure out where we were on the map. The newscast was entirely in Thai, and Dee already knew that we didn't get any English stations.

"Dee," I said. "Run downstairs to your Thai friends and find out what they know and what they are doing."

To read more, please click continue below.

***Moira's friend called back, saying that a tsunami could be produced from the earthquake, and if it were, it would arrive here within 15 minutes. She said the Thai government had issued a Warning. We didn't even talk about staying put.

In my PJs, I pulled on a pair of pants, then shoes, and grabbed my daypack, which has everything in it for the day—water, a long-sleeved shirt (for sun or temples), sunblock for the day, bugjuice for evening, passport/cash/ID, headlamp (Moosedog rule). On my way out the door I grabbed the rest of my unexposed film (about 18 rolls) and a sarong (for sleep/shade).

Later I realized I left behind: exposed film from the entire trip, extra batteries for the headlamp, the tiny tent. There just wasn't time to pack, or to think. Essentials only: clothing, sun protection, shelter at the Vol Center.

Within about two minutes we were downstairs and out front of the Khao Lak Inn. The Thai hotel clerks and shop owners were gone. There's a TV out front, and word travels fast. Motorbikes were flying by, with entire families on them, the baby's fine hair blowing in the breeze. Cars heading into town were honking, motorbikes bleating. Some volunteers on motorbike saw us and yelled, Get the Hell out of here!

Cars weren't stopping. We started to just walk to get moving uphill. I thought, there's no way we can get to the high point of the hill in 15 minutes, can we? Dee was wearing flipflops, standard Thai attire. Downtown Khao Lak is a flat basin, nearly level with the water. Only two months ago, it was leveled by the water. There wasn't even much to slow down the wave between the sea and what had been rebuilt or miraculously remained standing.

A grey pickup truck had pulled over. The windows were dark (the sun is bright here, so everyone has extra tinting) and we just climbed in the back. The street was slight chaos, people yelling, looking around, wondering about the others they had just seen on the patio where they had just been drinking and playing cards. We didn't know who we were with, we only knew they had good hearts, because they stopped for us.

As we pulled away, Thai merchants were yelling at us. They pointed to the left, 90 degrees to the road. They were trying to tell us we were going the wrong way, that the high hills weren't along the coast, but behind the main highway. The driver continued on.

We rode the breeze, looking out over the moonlit wasteland that once was 6000 hotel rooms, 8000 jobs. The wave they didn't know about snatched it all away. This time, was there a chance to be safe? Would everything rebuilt again be washed away?

We began to climb the hill to the volunteer center. We wondered if we should be asked to be let off, or just continue on with what we assumed was a Thai person inside. We figured whoever it was likely wouldn't want to stop again, but would know how high to go.

The truck turned in at the volunteer center. Loads of people were arriving. It turned out our rescuer was Ashok, a BBC documentarian, working on a film of Bang Naam Kem families. He immediately began asking for petrol, as the truck was on fumes, and he was thinking ahead.

People were asking around to account for everyone. "Have you seen Eli?" "What about the Canadian woman and her daughter, from our hotel? Have you seen them?" "I'm sure they're fine, they were drinking with the Thai guys out front, they would have taken them in the hotel truck."

The monkeys were nowhere to be found.

Inside, the TV was blaring a Thai news program. A woman was translating through a bullhorn for non-Thai. The mood was anxious, but not panicked. The volunteer center is on high ground, and the back of the property overlooks the water meters and meters below. Trying to remind everyone that the center was not troubled by the last wave, she called into the bullhorn, "Remember, this place used to be safe!"

We all laughed nervously at her English.

I went downstairs and dashed off a quick email and blog entry so you all would know I was all right. It was 12:06 when we heard the news, maybe a little before, and we were up the hill within 12 minutes, probably less.

People stood around, or sat, and chatted, or listened to the translation. Some monitored the AP wire via Yahoo and BBC. There were Thai families who worked in the center, Monty the tailor, the German drinker who had told us two nights ago he was staying through "To-morrow, morrow, morrow." There were reports that the ocean had gone way out, like the last time, but not as far. The moon was full only a few days ago, so tides would be high anyway.

Here's a bit from the official USGS tsunami bulletin:

WARNING... THIS EARTHQUAKE HAS THE POTENTIAL TO GENERATE A WIDELY
DESTRUCTIVE TSUNAMI IN THE OCEAN OR SEAS NEAR THE EARTHQUAKE.
AUTHORITIES IN THOSE REGIONS SHOULD BE AWARE OF THIS POSSIBILITY
AND TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION. THIS ACTION SHOULD INCLUDE EVACUATION
OF COASTS WITHIN A THOUSAND KILOMETERS OF THE EPICENTER AND CLOSE
MONITORING TO DETERMINE THE NEED FOR EVACUATION FURTHER AWAY.

THIS CENTER DOES NOT HAVE SEA LEVEL GAUGES OUTSIDE THE PACIFIC
SO WILL NOT BE ABLE TO DETECT OR MEASURE A TSUNAMI IF ONE WAS
GENERATED. AUTHORITIES CAN ASSUME THE DANGER HAS PASSED IF NO
TSUNAMI WAVES ARE OBSERVED IN THE REGION NEAR THE EPICENTER
WITHIN THREE HOURS OF THE EARTHQUAKE.


Some candles were rounded up, just in case, some radios, and a printout of every volunteer's name circulated for check-in. There was a report of a second quake, "more Richters" than the first. Then it turned out that only was a correction about the initial quake. By 2:30 an all clear was issued, and people started heading back. I didn't feel right about it, and Eli really didn't, since she was in a room by herself. I told her she could stay with us, we'd figure out a place for her.

As Ashok and his reporting partner rounded us up, I decided, and so did Eli, not to go back to town. I didn't think I could sleep well on low, level, ground, especially knowing that the 100% all-clear wasn't until 8am. We thought our hotel wasn't harmed the last time, and we were on the second floor, but it didn't feel good to me. Moira went back. Dee, we thought, would head back.

I sacked out on a very hard bench to doze a bit around 4am, using my bag as a pillow. One of the dogs had taken the only short couch earlier, and no one had the heart to wake him. The tile floor turned out to be more comfortable, and I dozed until the vampire mosquitoes woke up and made sleeping impossible.

Today will be long on little sleep, and interesting.

Click here for a related story from a local perspective, written from our area.

Click here for a summary of what happened and speculation on further quakes along the same fault.

Posted by sedda at March 29, 2005 03:58 PM