It happened that we were on vacation the second week of March in San Clemente, Calif. We had moved from there in 1995 to be closer to family in Newburyport, but we enjoy getting back to that sunny spot on the Pacific Ocean. We were awakened early March 11 by a phone call from our daughter in Massachusetts alerting us to the 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan and an impending tsunami heading toward the California coastline.
From our vantage point in an oceanfront condominium, 100 feet up from a bluff, we overlooked the San Clemente pier. This early morning there were people on the bluff looking out to sea in expectation of "The Big Wave." The local high school surfboard team had been pulled from their daily training in the ocean and were standing around as I walked down the hill for our daily newspaper.
Luckily, San Clemente faces more south than west, unlike beaches further north at Santa Cruz and Crescent City that sustained a combined $40 million in damage plus one loss of life. Thankfully, no tsunami materialized in San Clemente, but the beaches were closed for two days in any case.
With the threat of "The Big Wave" diminished, the next threat became radiation. Over the next week, there was a plethora of information on TV regarding where to buy Geiger counters (from $200 to $3,000), but very little input on how to operate them. Drug stores and pharmacies were having a run on KI pills (potassium iodide) to counteract the effects of radiation, which had not as yet reached California. As much as there were warnings about side effects, people were stocking up on the pills plus iodized salt. They didn't realize that it would require consumption of 3 pounds of salt to meet the recommended minimal dosage of KI. One redeeming factor, however; it took Charlie Sheen off California TV for a week.
It was always of little comfort when we lived there that we had the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station 2 miles from downtown San Clemente. It was built in the early 1970s to withstand an earthquake of 7.0 with a 30-foot wall surrounding it. Unfortunately, it lies on the ocean's edge and only 5 miles from an earthquake fault. The last big quake to hit the area was at Northridge, 75 miles north, and was 6.9 magnitude. Cold comfort indeed after Fukashima's 8.9!
When we lived in San Clemente, several times a year, we bolted from our beds when an earthquake hit and made for the transom between bedroom and garage, the strongest part of the house, and hung onto each other while the rocking and rolling continued. It seemed like an eternity, but was actually only seconds before it stopped. You may hide from a hurricane or a tornado, but with an earthquake, there is no place to hide. They talked all week there about "The Big One" that would strike California sometime within the next 34 years. I hope we aren't on vacation there during that time.
The tragic event in Japan brought home to my wife and me a recollection of a similar event 32 years ago: March 1979. We heard all the week of March 12 of the impending meltdown of the rods of the Fukashima plant and the dire consequences similar to Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. That's when it hit us hard! We had no idea how close a single reactor at that Pennsylvania plant came to complete meltdown in 1979. Our daughter was a student at Susquehanna University, just a few miles from the Three Mile Island facility. It was difficult to give advice because of the panic for all involved. We felt the best we could offer was to stay on campus and not get on clogged roads. For example, when the plant was nearing meltdown, evacuation routes for two adjoining counties, Dauphin and Cumberland, had traffic heading toward each other on the narrow Harvey Taylor Bridge over the Susquehanna River. Fortunately, cooler heads changed the routes.
The Chernobyl plant was sealed in cement September 1986. The people of Japan have a long road ahead rebuilding infrastructure that is totally wiped out over hundreds of miles. Still to be addressed personally is the loss of more than 11,800 lives, 15,540 missing and more than 450,000 in shelters. Life goes on, but memories of that specific day, March 11, will live forever.
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Robert D. Campbell, an essayist who lives in Newburyport, believes that a sense of humor is essential.