I love living by the ocean. Usually. This morning though I had cause to not love it so much. I had just waved my little bloke off on his school bus and was about to settle in front of the telly with my big bloke (who was feeling too crook for school and had selected episodes of Family Guy to entertain us) when the phone rang. My friend Tracy, using that tone one hears only rarely in life but which is instantly recognisable as signalling very bad news, says, "Are you watching the news?"
As is my custom I had heard all radio news broadcasts since 5.30 that morning but had missed the 8.30 one while getting little bloke on his bus. "Not right now, why?"
I thought I knew the big stories of the day. Ian Thorpe had not use banned substances to become the best swimmer of our age, Australia continued its dominance of international cricket at the World Cup in Antigua and dozens more people were murdered in Iraq and Afghanistan. What else was there to know?
A great deal apparently. There had been a nasty earthquake deep under the sea amongst the Solomon Islands and as a consequence of this, well, I'll let the Bureau of Meteorology take over the wording here:"Based on the magnitude and location of the earthquake,
tsunami could start affecting these locations at the following local times:
Cooktown from 0931am 02/04/2007
Cairns from 0949am
Mackay 1144am "
My charming seaside village of Redcliffe is slightly to the north east of our state capital Brisbane, so using my handy tsunami calculation converter tables I worked out that perhaps I didn't have until 10.33 to prepare but maybe only till 10.26. I mean, what?? 10.33? They could predict it that closely? These were extremely specific times being bandied about and I was actually in no mood to quibble with the experts, so I immediately swung into action. By that I mean I sat and stared at the television like a stunned mullet having no clue at all what to do.
After a few moments of this, and realising my son was quite disturbed by what he was hearing, I leaped up and logged into the Bureau website and sat and stared at that for a while too. Okay, from what was being said, firstly there was no evidence at all that a tsunami had been created by the earthquake. All predictions were based on if a tsunami was out there. How the hell could they not know? Two hours had passed since the earthquake. Our unstaffed weather station at remote Willis Island was already supposed to have been hit. Far north Queensland has military bases with roolly clever people with big planes and stuff. Why wasn't someone out over the ocean having a bloody look?
I was getting no answers to my questions but figured I had to do something or I'd go crazy. The first thing I knew I'd need was petrol for the car. The fuel light, in its usual friendly fashion, had been flashing at me for a couple of days so any thoughts of evacuating to the hills would be moot unless we fixed that small problem. Off we go to the service station and instead of the expected line up of cars around the block, we find that nobody else in the town has thought to fuel up. Hmm. We are a fairly relaxed people. With a national motto of ‘She'll be right, mate' I should not have been surprised, yet it worried me that nobody else seemed worried.
With a mostly full tank we returned home to see what was new. Nothing. There was no new information and now it was only an hour and a half to the end of the world. Okay. Deep breaths. I worked out that high ground to the west would only take about half an hour to get to. I could swing by the school, grab the little bloke and we could be having scones and tea at a charming mountain cafe with plenty of time to spare. So I decided to wait until 9.30 and listen for updates from Cooktown, the first mainland town expecting to be inundated.
The most worrying news during this time was that the city of Cairns was evacuating. Schools and child care centres were closed, elective surgery at the Cairns hospital was cancelled and all non-urgent cases in the emergency room were sent away. Cairns is a large coastal city built on a swamp. With the official Tsunami Watch warning us to stay away from beaches and low lying areas, that clearly meant the entire city of Cairns.
The best news during this time was a report finally from the instruments on Willis Island which had detected no increased wave action at or since the predicted time. Then 9.31 came and went. The residents of Cooktown were safe, dry and very relieved. More official information came with the confirmation that a tsunami did exist but, at a height of only thirty centimetres, it posed no threat to the coast of Australia.
And now the debates and discussions will continue. How do the authorities best disseminate information of this nature when so much is purely speculation? Why can no accurate assessment about the existence of a tsunami be known when they can predict so closely when it will hit if it does exist? How is panic avoided while still preparing for the worst? The head of emergency services for the township of Cooktown found out about this when a broadcaster from ABC radio rang to ask what preparations were taking place. There has to be a better way than that.
On the other hand, unlike the victims of boxing day 2005, at least our community did get warnings in plenty of time and if the worst had happened most of us would have had time to get to safety. So, whereas I was unnecessarily scared and worried for a nasty hour or so, I am grateful for the technology and procedures that existed here today.
(To our Pacific neighbours, the beautiful people of the Solomon Islands, who did suffer deadly destruction this morning, I extend my heartfelt sympathies. Please include them in your prayers today.)