Thursday, October 19, 2006

The intimation of catastrophe, part I

It is Sunday morning. Just after 7am, I wake up with a start, and a slight sense of panic, to the sound of my room's door shuddering loudly against the jamb. Over perhaps ten seconds, a series of thoughts presents itself. Gales of wind, whistling down Manoa Valley, must be blasting through the open window and shaking the door... but no, the air in the room is still. Someone, then, is banging their fist to wake me up. A big Saturday night party carrying over to Sunday morning? But the other, typically more studious residents of my unit have never, as far as I know, done anything so outlandish (or interesting) as getting drunk and harrassing their neighbours. And more to the point, this sound is not that made by a person knocking on wood. Its source seems more structural. So perhaps someone's clomping hurriedly down the hallway outside? But that can't be right either -- that hall is made of solid concrete, and however energetic, no flat-footed march or frenzied dash could cause the doorway to shake...

Wow. It's a goddamn earthquake.

I leap out of bed, throw on last night's clothes as the room keeps tremoring slightly, and I head out onto the 12th floor lanai, the open air walkway, where a number of pyjama-clad lost souls -- fellow quake victims -- are staring out over the valley with a certain glazed expression mixing puzzlement and concern, which, were I looking at my own face, I might find I also share. Although still almost as asleep as awake, I head to the building's elevator and ride from here, the top floor, down to the lobby. I want to get outside and walk around, give myself a chance to process what has happened. I don't sense any more tremors, and I'm not exactly worried. Just, you know, shaken.

Outside it's raining, and cloudy grey, for the long haul. I'm in a tee shirt, and it's not cold, but the rain is moderately heavy as I wander north across campus and turn left down Maile Way. There's virtually no one around, and no sound except the rain, and a distant car alarm triggered by the quake. I walk down past Saunders Hall, where I work at the futures center, and notice one of the elevators is frozen open on the ground floor, lights out. The whole place is eerily quiet, then as the rain picks up intensity and I shelter under the awning at the top of the steps of the Queen Lili'uokalani Center -- I notice that there are no lights on in any of the buildings.

Back at my hall of residence, Hale Manoa, perhaps a hundred people are chattering in the lobby (many of them still in pyjamas) and all the lights are gone, like the soul of the building had departed. Ah, and elevators aren't working any more either, hence the milling crowd. (Mixed reaction -- lucky the elevator got me to the ground floor before the power went out, deeply stupid that I even tried using it.) I chat with some friends for a few minutes -- talking about our surprised reactions, not yet thinking about the consequences this event could have for the rest of the day. Then I climb the eleven flights of stairs to my room, check my email (although the power's out, the answering machine isn't glowing at me and the fan isn't working, my laptop has a charged battery) and decide to get some more sleep.

Some hours later, I go out foraging. Need food. Maybe Volcano Joe's, a pizza place across the street, will be open. No such luck. But, bumping into some good friends who are out in their van and facing the same situation, I suggest we head down to the stores on University Avenue. Since nothing else seems to be working, maybe the pub is open.

It's bizarre: down here all the traffic lights are out, and many of the smaller stores which would be doing at least a light trade on a Sunday early afternoon are shuttered and dark. The supermarket around the corner is working, but the queues are stretching down the block. Are people stocking up in case the blackout isn't resolved -- or perhaps the cashiers are just working more slowly, having to record and calculate all the purchases by hand?

Now, personally -- if no one's getting hurt -- I enjoy a bit of chaos, a sense of routine disrupted. When everything is put on hold due to extraordinary circumstances, a degree of heightened awareness sets in, people attend to different things. They have to think differently, if only a little bit, because the complacency of the reflex action is temporarily out of commission. So our conversation at Magoo's, the local dive sports-bar, revolves in part around the challenges of getting food. The kitchen there gradually runs out of key ingredients and the menu becomes shorter and shorter. A gas-powered generator is able to keep a few essential lights on, with occasional interruptions that are met with cheers from the patrons, and the classic-rock jukebox imparts a festive mood; but when evening arrives, the lights on the streets and highway are still out, and cops are still waving through traffic with flares and whistles at the busy intersection of King St and University Avenue.

Down at Waikiki, one part of the city that with its intensive tourist presence seems likely to be a priority for the electricity to be restored early on, lighting remains minimal at 9pm. Apart from the larger hotels, hardly anything is open, and there are entire blocks where you can barely see someone standing a few feet in front of you. It is surreal. People seem not to be enjoying themselves too much down here, and while the ABC Stores (a chain selling mostly postcards and other tourist crap) are doing a roaring trade, this esplanade is suddenly out of its element, and feels neither quite like a public space (the way a park does) nor a private one (like a mall). It's in limbo; as if no one knows what to make of it or what to do here.

The idea of a riot, or of looting or generalised havoc, does not seem so implausible with the lights out. Possibilities, both grim and heartening, open up in your mind's eye when business as usual is put aside.

In point of fact, by the time I get back to my place, the power's on and the day's events are already taking on the odd quality of a waking dream. Although, I later learn, there were some greater disruptions (landslides, buildings evacuated) nearer the epicentre of the quake on Hawaii Island; as a friend of mine put it, the worst result for most people was spending part of the day in the 18th century. No harm done, apparently.

But it's interesting how the effects of an unexpected disruption dawn on you gradually. It's like there are layers of routine, expectation, and reliance, and you don't tend to comprehend the impact on all of them at once. Perhaps the measure of one's dependence on something can be realised in the cumulative layers of irritation, disappointment and despair that are peeled back after it is taken away, and how deep you have to dig into all that is a function of time spent without it.

Fortunately, this time Hawaii just scratched the surface. But I think there's much more to see.

/To be continued.../

1 comment:

shali_isdes said...

oooh, really? I cant wait.