It is a calm but cloudy fall morning in our part of North Carolina but a few hours drive to the east the Outer Banks are being blasted by the beginnings of what some in the media are calling “a 100 year storm” – it seems we get one at least every five to ten years…. Of course, any storm that has the potential to flood and leave our largest population centers without power is a big deal – but I am hoping the “100 year storm” moniker is media hype and not like hurricane “Hugo” that hit here in 1989.
While we lived in Asia we had many experiences with the dark side of Mother Nature. We lived in Kobe, Japan which was famous for the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. When we moved into our “earthquake proof” apartment building in early 2000, remnants of the tent cities that housed survivors from the 1995 quake were still visible on the artificial island which was our new home.
Although I had felt small earthquakes on prior trips to Japan, I had never experienced a quake of even moderate severity until a fall afternoon in 2000. I was working from home that afternoon and had the windows open in our 19th floor apartment to take in the breeze off the bay. I felt a slight shake which I thought was a gust of wind and then suddenly the floor beneath me started to move slowly back and forth. Maybe five seconds later, the pace increased. I jumped up and ran to the living room and saw a wall unit housing our stereo about to tip over, I heard screams coming from the people walking on ground level. A few moments later, I could feel that the “ripple” of the actual quake was over but the building continued to move as the technology built into the foundation did its job by allowing the movement to disperse the energy of the quake with minimal damage.
My wife rushed home from a nearby shopping center where only an hour before we had been together at Starbucks. Her first reaction to the shaking was that perhaps her decaf latte actually had caffeine but when she heard screams and saw panic in the eyes of the people around her she knew it was something else.
The kids came home from school and we shared our reactions. Since this was first earthquake our daughters had experienced and nobody was hurt - it was an "interesting" experience but not a big deal. They saw it differently than many of other students who burst into tears and in some cases become catatonic with fear. My daughters learned later that a few of their classmates were earthquake orphans; others lost relatives or friends in the 1995 quake. Any large earthquake caused them to flashback to the day when their lives were changed forever.
This was the first of many earthquake experiences we had in Japan. Fortunately it was also the most severe. Each quake made my wife a little more uneasy but the kids seemed to take them as a normal part of life. A few years later we got a good jolt and my wife wanted us all to get ready to leave the building. My younger daughter was taking a bath and as the water sloshed out of the tub and onto the floor she said “mom – it is just an earthquake, I am going to finish my bath”.
Besides earthquakes, our high rise apartment on an artificial island in Kobe Bay provided a great view during one of the worst typhoon seasons Japan had experienced in many years. Our building not only moved back and forth during earthquakes, it also accommodated high winds by “swaying in the breeze” for extended periods. In the middle of a typhoon, our building felt like a ship moving through rough seas - the steel structure made appropriate noises and as my daughters and I made jokes about the Titanic, my wife’s sense of humor was tested.
Our Christmas vacation in 2004 found us on an island in the Andaman Sea. At the last minute, we adjusted our schedule so my elder daughter could meet friends for a ski trip. The peaceful beach where we jet skied was overtaken by waters from the tsunami on Boxing Day. If we hadn’t changed our plans by one day we would have been in the midst of that tragedy.
Once we were back in Japan, we learned that a friend of ours died on a beach in Thailand. Another was injured as she clung to a tree. Several other friends who were in the area were fortunate enough to have been out of the path of the rising water.
Our time in Japan drew to a close and as we packed our belongings for the move to Shanghai, my wife said she was glad to be going to a place with no earthquakes. The day before we arrived in China, Shanghai was hit by a large typhoon - the first in many years.
I am hoping the coming storm "Sandy" is a bust but only time will tell.