April 11 was a strange day. My hubby was back at home in Texas for business. In Malaysia, it was a last-minute public holiday for the coronation of the new king. (In an incredibly fair system developed when Malaysia gained independence from England, the ceremonial position of king is a 5-year stint that rotates among Malaysia's nine states' hereditary royal rulers.) Everyone was off from school and work and in a holiday mood. Then, the earth started shaking, and we turned our eyes to the sea to see if a giant wave was going to engulf us.
I had just told my kids that I'd take them to the pool as soon as I finished watering the plants. As I walked around my balcony, I began to feel it bounce beneath me. "Shoddy Malaysian construction," I thought to myself and stepped back inside. That's when I realized that it wasn't just the balcony, the whole building was shaking. My kids had felt it, too, and came out of their rooms.
We decided to head down the stairs. My agile boys made it down quickly, but my girl and I were a little slower. Living a little more than halfway up a 40-story high rise tower, it took me about 8 minutes to get to ground level. When I thought about it hours later, I realized that if the building was shaking hard enough to be structurally dangerous, I probably would have been thrown down the stairs. I should have just stayed put.
After talking with others, it seemed that the higher up a building a person had been, the scarier the quake was. This makes sense. Friends who had been eating at McDonald's, wandering around Little India or hanging out on the beach didn't even feel the shaking. A friend who lives 13 floors lower me initially thought a breeze was just blowing her door back and forth until she realized no windows were open. The one who lives nearly at the top of the 40-story building was the most spooked. Others who lived in older condo towers said the pictures were shaking on the walls or that they couldn't evacuate because the building was moving too much.
There was a small crowd gathered outside by the playground. Murmurs of "8.6 earthquake in Sumatra" started floating around. Soon afterward, people started talking about tsunamis and headed back up into the building. I checked the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and, after much deciphering of the information, figured out that a tsunami was predicted to hit Penang about 4 hours later.
Even though I didn't particularly like the idea of waiting for aftershocks inside the building, we went back upstairs, too. My mother's stories of collapsed towers during the a 1968 Filipino earthquake flitted through my mind. A few of my friends opted to pack their families into the car and drive up to higher ground so that they wouldn't have to be inside. I was optimistic enough to wash school uniforms for the next day but still worried enough to pack a survival pack. (I guess that's what happens when you're the mom of a Boy Scout and read too much Hunger Games.) I loaded up a backpack with flashlights, bottled water, granola bars, a waterproof groundcloth, pocketknife, first aid kit and whistle, then left it by the front door.
Waiting for a tsunami is a weird experience. I kept looking outside at the water, wondering if the large cargo ships would be swept against my building. I turned on the local news but found coronation coverage on almost every station. Al-Jazeera turned out to have good coverage of the current events. I figured that if the waves hadn't swept over Indonesia, we were probably in good shape.
It turns out that Penang has some sort of tsunami plan in place. Unlike The Big Island of Hawaii, I've never seen "Tsunami Zone" signs or sirens around here. Instead, an ambulance drove down busy waterfront streets loudly announcing the warning in Malay. Hotels in the resort area started closing their beaches. Civil defense personnel rode up and down beaches on motor scooters telling people to clear out.
Two hours after the first quake, an aftershock hit. In my kitchen, the sliding glass door started rattling back and forth. Part of me wanted to go back down, but I convinced myself to stay put. Almost everyone I knew thought that staying high up in a building was the best bet. Those who lived in bungalows accepted the kind offers of their high rise dwelling friends inviting them over.
Finally, my husband woke up in Texas, heard the news reports and gave me a call. I had been worried that the last thing he'd ever hear from me was an email saying, "Earthquake hit. We're going back in the building." It was such a relief to talk with him since he's a rather pragmatic guy. At that point, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reduced the watch area, taking Malaysia off the list. Forty minutes later, about the time the wave had originally been predicted to hit Penang, they canceled the Indian Ocean warning entirely. Thank goodness! Big sigh of relief!