Rim of Fire Update: California Tsunami

This is an update from Steven Bird from the coast of California. Click here to read the first article.


Doris was in bed sleeping and I was working on an article for my blog. The phone rang at 11:30, always a foreboding ring so close to midnight, and I wondered who.

“Uncle Steve…”

It was my nephew, Jake. Lives in town. Hacker. Bass player. He rarely calls. Soon as I heard his voice I knew it was bad news – I figured either he, or his band-mate, my son Hank, had been busted for something. Or worse.

“… Hey dja hear about the earthquake offa Japan? Big one. Their sayin we’re gonna get a tsunami. Figured I better call you – “

Doris came padding in her nightgown, sleepy-eyed, into our little office nook. “What was that about an earthquake?…”

And then the phone rang again. My brother, calling from up in Washington: “Hear about the tsunami? You better get out, just heard on the radio there’s a thirty foot wave coming your way – ”

I pulled up the news while Doris bent over my shoulder. Sure enough. There was no film footage posted so I scrolled through the photos.  I had to squint to make out the details in the first picture from Japan, as it looked like a close-up of stew in a pot. The ingredients came into focus and a terrible stew it was, vehicles, power poles, twisted metal gridwork, large ships, blended among a vast flotilla of demolished buildings and homes. “Oh my god, the people…”  Doris started but could not finish the thought.

All of them loved ones. The sea out of place. That swift, cold harvest of souls.

The phone again. My cousin Richard back in Massachusetts. Remember Richard? He is the cousin I chained to a tree in an effort to get him detoxed. He’d sworn revenge. It’s about 3:00 in the morning there. Sounds like he’s eating a bowl of cereal: “…Cuz… slurp, munch-munch… there’s a thirty footah comin yo-ah way… munch, munch – ”

I wasn’t that worried. We keep a trailer here for winters, and what valuables we have can be packed into the pickup on short order. So we lose the old mobile. No big deal I figured. We were a whole lot luckier than those people in Japan, we had plenty of time to get our things together and drive uphill. Doris looked worried. I switched on the radio and continued monitoring news sources online. Yes, a tsunami warning for the U.S. west coast was in effect. Apparently it needed to hit Hawaii before its height, upon reaching California, could be estimated. Turned out, the ‘thirty foot wave’ was a rumor, the spin of ‘news’ agencies already postulating the greatest estimated height.

But I was still plenty concerned. Back in the 1800’s, before there was a town here, this part of the coast was inundated by a tsunami estimated to have been eighty to a hundred feet in height, which would place our present abode about that same depth under water. For perspective: a seven foot sea rise with the thrust of a tsunami behind it would easily take out most of the town of Morro Bay, including our place.

“Let’s just wait and see how big it is when it hits Hawaii, I don’t think we need to worry,” I said, not really knowing, but ever the optimist until the last minute.

Nevertheless, we assembled our things close to hand. Doris packed the photo albums first, then her art stuff and the small jewelry box containing the cameo my father gave her. I disconnected the compact external hard-drive containing most of my writing from the laptop and dropped it into a backpack along with an armload of notebooks. There was still some room. I scanned the bookshelves. I reached for Cormac McCarthy, ‘Blood Meridian’. Then Annie Dillard, ‘Holy the Firm’ – that was a thin one, there was room for one more, I scanned again, thinking, and my hand went to the old bible Doris’s great-grandmother carried from Norway over a hundred years ago, and printed in a language neither of us understood.

No way could we sleep. People kept calling to warn us, relatives, old friends who we hadn’t heard from for years, seemed like the whole country was awake and buzzing all night. At an hour when there is usually only the sound of surf from our doorstep, I went outside and listened to the steady grind of traffic on the highway as already spooked coastal residents evacuated to higher ground. There was a vibe. A clutch of the trailer park women were in the street conferring in their bathrobes. While I stood in the driveway, the town’s emergency sirens came on, contributing considerably to the sense of urgency. Then I heard the sirens from the Diablo nuclear power plant, set upon on low bluff by the sea, seven miles away. Surely there is no sound more hellish than the blare of sirens. I went back inside, picked up my guitar from the couch, strummed a few chords, then packed it into its case.

At 6:00 AM: my son Joe left the harbor at Morro Bay, at the wheel of his commercial fishing boat, ‘Flatfish’, as fishermen and others with moored boats moved them offshore. He headed West toward the horizon and when he arrived about five miles offshore he lay at idle, the sea building and odd. When it passed under the boat he felt the energy of it as a great school of leviathan rushing toward the shore and he and his boat a speck, inconsequential of notice in the passing.

California awaited the unfathomable. And it did not arrive as a wave, rather, a rising of the sea, swelling to surge up and over the white beaches to the sand dunes and pouring into those low places where the brown rug of California ends, to lap the verbena and iceplant. And then it sucked back out carrying loose land debris with it, and the ocean went dry for a long ways out, exposing rocks not regularly seen. In the harbor, boats spun on their mooring lines. Some collided and one sank. Many had crowded to the beach to shoot photos, some out of a strange curiosity, as if daring the sea to take them. A few, too close, were caught up and pulled from the shore. Northern California and Southern Oregon got the worst of it, with nearly every boat moored at Brookings, damaged or sunk.

Though we were ready to go, the warning came down before the initial sea-rise arrived. There came a series of strong surges with the resulting suck-outs,  and these lesser waves still continue.

Following the event, the wind rose steady from the Northwest and bent the palms. An editor from Readthisplease.com called shortly after, wanting to make sure we were okay, and then other family and friends throughout the day. The neighborhood was abuzz and everybody was out and about and excited. I watched my neighbors while they talked, leaning into one another, touching arms, clasping shoulders, obviously relieved, the fresh reminder of their own mortality rendering them strangely childlike, if only for the day. Our side of the Rim of Fire was spared, this time.


Rim of Fire – California Tsunami © 2011 Steven Bird. Click Steven’s profile for more articles, stories, and links to his advocacy blog.

2 Responses to “Rim of Fire Update: California Tsunami”
  1. You could definitely see your enthusiasm in the paintings you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to say how they believe. Always go after your heart.

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