Last year, on March 11, I spent the night on the top of Wa’ahila Ridge on the island of Oahu, waiting for the tsunami to roll across the Pacific from Japan.

The reason I was in Hawaii, of course, was to escape winter in Seattle. And when the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan stunned the world, I was sitting in, of all places, a waterfront lounge sipping a Chi Chi Colada. 

I remember how the mood changed in an instant, how everyone in the restaurant suddenly knew it was time to stop vacationing and do something. Just the sound of a tsunami siren can bring anyone back to reality.

Bullhorns roused swimmers off the beach, told everyone to move to the upper floors of our hotels, urged us not to drive and clog the roads. I ran to my room, packed a bag, ignored the stay-off-the-road warnings, nosed my rental car out of the parking garage and made a run — or rather, a crawl — for the ridge. There was a long line of cars inching ahead of me. 

Maybe it was the still-fresh images of Thailand’s 2004 tsunami that made me question taking refuge anywhere near a hotel. I needed higher ground, and I had several hours to find it.

Anyone who has flown over the island of Oahu remembers Diamond Head crater rising up as if to greet you. But standing on a ridge top of the Koolau Range that divides leeward from the windward — a spectacular view of the vast, open ocean beyond the most isolated island in the world — takes your breath away. It’s as if you are glimpsing some new possibility of sea that had never occurred to you before. 

And what becomes chillingly apparent is that the entire southeast coastline from tourist Waikiki to residential Honolulu is a plane of low-lying land — flat as Fukushima Prefecture.

 

Sharing uncertainty

Locals and tourists live parallel lives; there is little common ground. There are, however, two things that always seem to bridge the gap: music and food. That night, sitting on blankets and tailgates at the top of the ridge, a few local people strummed ukeleles (they really do play them), fired up barbecues, divvied up a huge box of malasadas, even passing one to the Ha’ole lady (me), and poked fun at the "wahines" who took turns peeing into a couple of buckets set up on the fringes off the road. 

One man talked story about the last tsunami warning, the year before, set off by an earthquake in Chile. "I got in my truck, no pants. My wife kept yelling, ‘Where your pants went?’" We all laughed. 

I know. It all sounds rather festive for an evening fraught with uncertainty. But I have come to believe that a power greater than all of us, greater than the strongest tsunami, always works to restore us to a basic human level of caring for one another, and that life is a whole lot kinder and more enjoyable when you have others to take to the mountains with. 

I suppose this is what the Hawaiian people really mean when they describe “having aloha.”

 

When we meet again

Today, in my home in Belltown, far from any ridge top, I take a moment to remember fleeing from where a real and an imagined tsunami can, and likely will, converge one day. 

When the coast was clear, I said to one particularly sweet woman how I hoped I’d see her again, and I remember that she looked back at me and said, "Next time there’s an earthquake, I’ll be here."

I weighed the prospect of returning to Hawaii, which I love, against the likelihood of visiting during another tsunami, which I hope never, ever happens.

I waved and drove away. 

MARY LOU SANELLI’s latest book is “Among Friends.” Visit her website: www.marylousanelli.com.