Childhood Fears

Whenever I hear the word “tsunami” I get a reaction, in which I want to crawl up a tree and hide and wait for it to be over. Not a good strategy, I know.

I was thinking about that, the other day, because the youtube algorithm sent me a video of some Japanese tsunami footage. My reaction was to jerk away from the screen and then calm down, sit a bit, and think about why that happened. It didn’t take long to figure out. I have a vivid visual memory associated with tsunamis that comes from my childhood, and it defines my expectation of what a “tsunami” is.

I suspect it’s also bullshit. But let’s look at this together as an example of how a vivid piece of art can establish a fictional part of our understanding of reality.

There was a nasty off-shore earthquake at Valdez, Alaska, in 1964, when I was 2. I don’t remember it at all because I was busy learning how to be human, but it was written up in National Geographic and my grandparents saved every edition of National Geographic since the first. Seriously, there was a whole wall in my grandparents’ house that was pure National Geographic. And, as a kid, I would read my way around in there, always being sure to put everything back in the right place (which was hard, sometimes, as the stacks were heavy). I don’t remember when I found the edition that covered the Valdez tsunami, but I read it and was horror-struck. [National Geographic on “earthquakes”]

It’s not just a tsunami, it’s burning and throwing railroad car trucks.

I don’t think that the illustration is accurate but it sure is effective. “Avoid tsunami!” is the message. Also: “You can run but really don’t bother.”

In reality, the Valdez tsunami resulted in about 131 deaths – many of which are depicted in this fictional scene.

Now, I understand why I don’t like hanging out on the west coast where the San Juan De Fuca plate is cocked and locked, ready to go: I don’t want to be the guy running as the forest is about to fall on him.  It’s interesting to me now how deeply I have absorbed this image.

It’s also interesting how well image searching works, now. I put a couple search terms in a window and got back 3 pages of images; the one I was looking for (in spite of being from a magazine that was published in 1963!) was on the second page and I recognized it instantly.


  1. says

    I live in a relatively safe place (Eastern Europe). Earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, etc. simply do not happen here. The worst things we can get here are a bit of wind and cold winters. Thus, as a child, I perceived natural disasters as things that cannot happen with me. I felt safe. I watched video footage of natural disasters with the same sense of detachment as fantasy films about heroes fighting against dark wizards. I just didn’t truly fear natural disasters on an emotional level.

  2. says

    Marcus wrote:

    I don’t like hanging out on the west coast where the San Juan De Fuca plate is cocked and locked, ready to go

    There is an article at The New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz that impressed me: The Really Big One
    “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when. …”

    (Btw., Juan De Fuca has not been canonized.)

  3. says

    Here is another quote from The Really Big One: ‘Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”’

  4. says

    “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

    Yeah, I read that article when it first came out and the picture in my mind was the painting from National Geographic only bigger. But that’s not what it will look like.

    The movie San Andreas has some (SPOILER!) really bad tidal wave scenes, including supertankers and bridges and such. I assume that the director also saw the National Geographic painting and that is why that scene played itself out, physics be damned.

    All that said, an asteroid impact would probably make that kind of wave. Not that anyone is left alive afterward to discuss it.

  5. says

    Marcus @#5:

    Oh, he probably didn’t massacre enough people, or something.

    Yes, Saint Teresa of Calcutta is more to the Holy See’s liking, with her denying of medical care, nutrition, and analgesics to those dying in pain.

  6. says

    I really, REALLY hate living in Alberta, but natural disasters are few and far between here. There are tornadoes, but Edmonton got hit by one over 30 years ago and that’s been it.

    For political and little-ice-on-the-sidewalks reasons I’d like to move to BC, preferably Vancouver or Victoria, but the threat of earthquakes and tsunamis are almost enough to make me stick to my seismically safe city.

  7. says

    I’ve seen news footage of tsunamis in action, they’re scarier than those pictures. Nothing like seeing a seething brown wall bearing down on a lone tourist with his back to the sea, waiting patiently for it to smash him. That was in Aceh, Indonesia. People who know about tsunamis see the receding tide that comes before the wave and run inland and up sturdy buildings, screaming at everyone to follow. Ignorant people toddle off to the beach to fossick for interesting things exposed by the super low tide, for the last time in their lives.

    Here in Australia the terror is of bush fires, people who come to visit ask me if I’m not worried about fire danger. No, I tell them, not as much as huddling together in town waiting for the tinkling of the glass of the bathroom window being broken, the screech of tyres as a car out of control hurtles towards your bedroom wall, the crackle of your front fence being set on fire, the almost certain chance of meeting a stoner who wants your stuff and doesn’t care if they hurt you badly.

    Despite the last week of bush fires nearby taking out 87 houses or more, I’d still rather deal with that instead of the ranks of rank humanity.

  8. Roj Blake says

    For Dog’s sake, Lofty. Have you swallowed the Mike Rann drugs?

    A stoner is a smoker, a toker, a puffer of weed. Stoners are most definitely non-violent. I feel far more fear from the Mob From Alberton than I do of a stoner. I see alcohol-fuelled violence every time I go near a football game, but never, ever, do I see a bunch of stoners leaving a rock concert and beating up people.

    I have never had to face a bushfire close up, although I had a few close calls with flood while living in Queensland. I survived the Christchurch earthquakes, although how I will never know. I travel by train from Smithfield to the City. But I have never, ever, been met by a stoner who wants my stuff and doesn’t care if they hurt me badly.

  9. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 Jörg
    Ah yes, I read that article a couple of days ago. Maybe not getting that job in Victoria (the city not the state) was not that bad after all.

    Like Tabby Lavalamp in Alberta, Ontario seems fairly quiet though we apparently had a couple of earthquakes I never even noticed.

  10. says

    The tsunami that I think most about is the 1960 Valvadia earthquake, even if it was before my time.

    The magnitude (9.5) isn’t what sticks out nor the death toll (up to 7000). It’s the placement: Chile’s straight coastline acted as a mirror, reflecting the energy in a great circle across the Pacific. Chile warned Japan that a tsunami would be coming in 22-24 hours. I can’t say for certain, but I thnk this was the one that showed we need worldwide cooperation on gelogical study.

    Andreas (#1) –

    The ones you list may be unlikely, but a repeat of the January 1998 ice storm is certainly possible.

  11. says

    Roj Blake, sorry if I used the wrong term, it’s hard to keep up with all the drug addict descriptors when you’re not actively engaged in the Suspicious White Substance scene.

    Every year we used to watch the bush fires creeping up Anstey’s Hill, just to the east of us. Mother would panic a bit and put all her valuables in a small bag and hang it just inside the swimming pool. Us boys would just sit and watch, thinking about the excitement. It seemed that other boys in the neighbourhood were more interested in starting fires than us as they usually started at night when we were safely at home.

  12. Roj Blake says

    that’s cool, Lofty. I have been a lifelong campaigner for sensible drug laws, mostly based on harm minimisation. South Australia led the way, once, with the decriminalisation of homegrown pot plants, but that seems so long ago now, and I do blame Mike Rann for a lot of the great unwinding of sensible policy.

    As to bushfires, I lived at Ridgehaven Ash Wednesday, and even that felt uncomfortably close.

  13. lochaber says

    I studied geology for a bit before dropping out, and reading the beginning, and seeing the pic, I suspected it would be the ’64 Valdez earthquake. That one is legendary, and always comes up in classes and such…

    Intransitive@12 – holy shit, how have I never heard of that one!? (thanks for bringing it to my attention)

    I’ve been kinda liking living in the San Francisco Bay Area since I moved here, although I do miss having a real winter… although I haven’t experienced a severe earthquake, the minor ones I’ve felt have been rather interesting. I’ve looked at a couple tsunami maps/emulators/etc., and I think where I live is relatively safe, it’s not right on the ocean, and it’s far enough away from the subducting plate that any quake big enough to produce a tsunami that would directly affect me, would likely cause more damage/risk itself. Plus, there would be plenty of warning to get to high ground if need be. But it would certainly trash most of coastal Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia…

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