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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Tsunami warning

April 17, 2024

On a tiny island in the East China Sea, a tsunami warning sends the population hustling to higher ground. The island lies next to an undersea fault in the earth’s crust and has seen the devastation that comes from a big shaker.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

An alert sounded on my phone while on the small island of Ishigaki in Japan.

“Tsunami,” it said.

I looked outside and none of the neighbors were stirring, their cars quietly parked.

Not an emergency, I thought, but even so we should probably get away from the coast. So we stopped to get coffee at one of the many conveniences stores, pronounced "konveenee" by the locals, but before I could pay, the staff was hustling out of the store in a bit of panic and closing up.

By then a non-moving line of traffic had formed on the road to higher ground.

So we went along a low coastal road, driving fast, to get to another road that led inland to a higher elevation.

Climbing through a neighborhood we passed some locals walking, including an old woman, then, after reaching a major road, we came by a man with a red light wand in each hand waving cars into a parking lot for what turned out to be City Hall, the administrative center for the island.

On our way into the main hall, a worker with a clipboard took down our names. Inside chairs were being unfolded and set out on the lobby floor, bottles of water were passed out.

I decided to wander around, looking out of place as a white guy wearing shorts and a wrinkled shirt amidst trim, neatly attired, mostly young, Japanese government workers.

The Ishigaki Island City Hall. (Bill Girdner/Courthouse News)

Each department had a sign above the counter in both English and Japanese, and behind the counters were large open areas filled with desks and people working.

On the ground floor was the payment department, collecting taxes and fees. Next to that was the department for the old and another for the disabled. Going up a floor were departments for fishing and, separately, for farming.

While all those departments were fully staffed, the emergency department was mostly empty. All of its workers were out waving light wands, gathering names, handing out water and otherwise springing into action for the emergency.

But there was, in the end, no emergency. Radiating out from a major earthquake in Taiwan, the tsunami, by the time it reached Ishigaki, was six inches tall. A wavelet.

Nevertheless, the island of 84 square miles set out in the vastness of the East China Sea is vulnerable to whatever calamity the heavens may bring, from powerful typhoons to earthquakes and the enormous wave that shakers can generate.

The island lies next a fault in the ocean toward the east. A 1771 earthquake with its epicenter in that trench formed a tsunami 30-40 meters high that raced onto the island, killed 12,000 people, and, because of the destruction to the land, caused a famine that lasted 80 years and reduced the island population to one third its earlier size.

So the residents have good reason to run for their lives when tsunami warnings sound.

But four hours after this warning, the konvenees had reopened and the daily rhythm of life had returned to its regular beat. I swim in the ocean two times a day when I’m on the island, in the morning and again in the late afternoon.

By the time I went to the beach that afternoon, parasols were out, the shed renting floats was back in operation, and families were in the water, with no evidence of the wavelet.

I took a long swim and sat on a towel on the beach for a little while afterwards, watching the march of low clouds out over the ocean, with a light, warm breeze blowing.

This was the gentle side of the sea’s reign over weather on the island.

Categories / International, Op-Ed

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