On a vacation evening in Okinawa, conversations stop as a public loudspeaker begins broadcasting. The voice has a metallic, over-amplified quality. It warns that a super-typhoon is on its way.
The next night, Typhoon Jelawat begins curling up into the sky like some enormous genie coming out of a magic teapot down south over the horizon. Shops are shut, anything that can be blown is pulled down,anything that can be blown over is stashed, or, like the lifeguard towers on the shallow cove next to the hotel, pulled down sideways onto the sand.
From the vantage point of the 7th floor of the aptly named Vessel Hotel, an upright ship of rooms moored on the edge of the East China Sea, lights stretch around the bay towards the city of Naha, the sea ink black and heaving beneath them, the sky above them filled with long ragged columns of clouds shot with dark,dark blue, all beneath a high firmament of soft, deep gray.
Thunder claps once, but not again.The wind is big, ominous, but, as though playing cat and mouse, it blows not so hard that a few souls cannot rush about on final errands along the empty, dark, wet streets amid flurries of rain.
Hotel maids hand out sets of towels to roll against the bottom of the balcony windows. The local Ferris wheel has stopped. We wait for Jelawat.
Ir arrives early in the morning. A mini-van is trying to drop someone off at the hotel. The driver cannot move the van against the wind. His passengers cannot get out, for fear of being blown over.
A few cars in exposed parts of the parking lot are tossed into others. No one can leave. The sea is white with froth and sand is being blown from the beach up all the way to the 7th floor balcony where it piles in wet drift.
At one point in the morning, electricity cuts out. The elevators stop running.
A few people came down the stairs but must cross an open area of twenty feet before getting to the hotel's main doors, that can only be pried apart by hand. A group runs across, and one woman is blown up against the back of another. Both are knocked down, one twisting her knee.
Some American servicemen are also staying at the hotel, and, good and wet just from crossing to the open area to the main doors, one says to the others, "That was awesome!"
I expected a whistling or moaning in the wind, but it is more overwhelming and powerful than that, a dull roar of wind all around, all the time.
I step outside to feel its force, and find that one can navigate but only by adopting the stance of football lineman charging into the opposing line, crouched, tensed, fully forward.
The staff at the hotel are remarkably sweet and diplomatic in the circumstances. It amazes me that they let people go out and try the wind. But it is, I have found, a culture of extreme politeness and service to customers, such that is seems almost impossible to tell the guests they cannot do something.
The staff serves lunch and dinner on the house to all the people trapped in the hotel, including guests who have checked out and cannot leave. In the evening, a big television in the lobby shows the red circle of high winds has moved just north of Okinawa.
The winds outside the hotel drop a couple notches and I take a walk in the area.
The few out on the street are made up of a majority of women, braving the gusts of wind to check things out. The wine store is already open for business, so I stop in. Apart from a couple blown down fences, the damage is slight. Nets have protected the windows of all the shops.
The Okinawans are used to it, stuck on a big island smack in the path of typhoons coming up from the south. They batten down their houses and businesses, lay in supplies, and ride the storm out.
One day later, the island has returned to normal. A convenience store called Lawson's, part of a chain that is omnipresent on the island, is open. The shelves are half-empty, the place is full of customers, and even with the rush of business, the staff hails each person that enters and each person that leaves, including the American.
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