Wednesday, December 29, 2004


The dreams don’t come often, but when they do, they are vivid, intense, terrifying. I find myself in a surreal city, a landscape of buildings and causeways, a science-fiction Miami. And then I am on the beach... and that is when the huge wave comes in.

I’ve had this fascination with huge ocean waves since I was very young. It probably comes from a kiddie science textbook I read at an early age, a textbook that left powerful images seared into my tender young mind. Images of giant waves. Images of the Sun as a bloated red giant, then as a shriveled white dwarf star, far in the future. The images both enraptured and horrified me. Years later, when I saw the movie Annie Hall, I could empathize with the young Alvy Singer, who no longer would do his homework because he had become obsessed with the eventual end of the world, five billion years away. (“What’s the point?”) Evidently, he had read the same book I did!

But the pictures of hundred-foot waves crashing down stayed with me, and even today they come out in my dreams.

The mind has trouble grasping the immensity of large ocean waves. In Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, as one travels counter-clockwise around the island, the gentle swells of Waikiki give way to the heavy shore break of Sandy Beach Park, hard by Hanauma Bay. Sandy Beach Park, with its six- to ten-foot shore break, is a popular body-surfing beach. But those six- to ten-foot waves break plenty of surfers’ backs each year. Standing in that surf is just a little scary. And this is all small potatoes compared to the immense rollers that come pounding in to the North Shore beaches in the winter. Thirty-footers and more, when those nice North Pacific storms set the swells in motion. The break is well offshore at beaches like Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach, so the monstrous size of these waves is not immediately apparent... until you see the tiny figures sliding down their faces on those fiberglass boards.

A tsunami is a different matter entirely.

It’s not the height of the wave that makes a tsunami so scary. It’s the sheer relentlessness of the thing. Unlike waves that are formed by the action of wind on water, a tsunami is formed by the displacement of the ocean floor. In the deep ocean, it may be only nine or twelve inches from crest to trough. But it carries a huge amount of energy... and it moves fast. Think of how heavy a 750-mile-long block of ocean would be. Then imagine the energy it would take to lift it 100 feet all at once. That’s what we’re dealing with. A monster pulse of energy moving at 500 miles per hour.

When the energy pulse approaches shore, the water begins to pile up. Higher, higher... until it’s a wall of water as high as a six-story building. And when it hits land, there’s nothing behind it but ocean.

Lots of ocean.

Ocean that can take buildings, cars, livestock, trees, and people, and tumble them all together like pebbles in a cement mixer, then suck everything out to sea in the backwash.

One of the prayers we Jews say every morning is “Barukh Atah, Hashem, Elokeinu melech ha-olam, roka ha-aretz al ha-mayim.” Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who spreads out the earth upon the waters. We take for granted that the earth and the waters are separate and that each will remain in its place. When they do not, even for a single, terrifying instant, the results are catastrophic... as they were just days ago on coasts all around the Indian Ocean.

As of this morning, the body count is up to 58,000 after the Great South Asia Tsunami of 2004. [Update: 114,000 as of December 30.] The sheer numbers are staggering, dwarfing even the number of souls lost when Krakatau exploded in 1883 in the same part of the world. It’s a sobering reminder of just how puny we humans are and how tenuous our existence.

May those who suffer as a result of this tragedy find comfort.

And I will continue to live with my tsunami dreams... and be thankful that they are only dreams, for me.

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