POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Mar 13, 2011
Every time there's an earthquake in the Pacific Rim or a storm churning in the ocean hundreds of miles away, there comes the awareness of the gap between how much modern science is able to predict and how much we still don't know. There are now sophisticated tools that give warnings hours before a tsunami or hurricane reaches Hawaii's shores, and yet these advances still can't tell if it's going to be a great wall of water that rages onto the coast or a slight shadow on the surface of the ocean, leaving TV anchors barely able to hide their disappointment.
"Prepare for the worst, hope for the best" is still the bottom line. So much is wait-and-see, or more accurately, wait-and-wait-and-wait-and-see.
But other things are quite predictable when the bulletins are announced and the sirens blare. There's the wave of outrage over the "idiots" blithely ignoring the warnings. During every storm, approaching hurricane, and tsunami warning of recent memory, news cameras inevitably find the desperadoes out there, faces to the horizon, chests out as if saying, "Come on. Let's see what you got." This guy is an archetype, the fool of Tarot decks, the jester of medieval kingdoms, and he shows up, sometimes in pairs or flocks. He makes the huddled, sheltered masses feel righteous in their fear.
The lines at the gas station are totally predictable, as are store shelves emptied of bottled water, batteries, toilet paper and canned meat. No matter how many times reminders go out about what items are needed in a home preparedness kit, readiness becomes a priority only when there's something scary approaching.
Watching the local event covered by national media is particularly unnerving. They often get the place names wrong or say things like "a city just outside Honolulu" when they're talking about a place like Kahuku. They'll relay a breathless "eyewitness report" from a tourist who actually saw nothing but can describe what it was like sleeping on the floor of the hotel ballroom rather than talking to some dude who has lived near the beach for 50 years who had to drive mauka and sleep in his truck with one eye on the shoreline. Realizing how outside media approximates local news makes you start to doubt their coverage on other matters, and that's an unhappy realization.
Another almost inevitable occurrence is the day-after grumbling about how this agency overreacted, that agency underreacted, and what we should do next time if the wave really does hit. No matter how city, state and federal agencies respond to a natural disaster, no official wants the "heck of a job there, Brownie" moment, so there is always the need afterward to defend every decision. Nothing they do is ever perfect, and there's always some pocket of the community that felt forgotten.