Sunday, July 22, 2007

Not Cheesy Hollywood, But Real Life Disasters

I just finished watching one of those cheesy Hollywood disaster flicks. This one was Atomic Twister. It was an interesting twist on a tried and true disaster...the tornado.

The plot was a tornado hitting a nuclear power station, not once, but twice, causing a condition which could lead to a meltdown. Of course there were subplots all over the place and everything came out on the good side at the end. Sharon Lawrence was about the only redeeming grace in the flick. She's still a hottie.

I always watch these types of movie with a bit of humor mixed with a bit of reality. You see, I went through my own Hollywood-style disaster, but it wasn't a movie.

If all you ever do is read my blog entries, you've learned a lot about the reality of my life. Sixteen years ago, I was closing out my military career, preparing to retire. I was working at what was considered one of the best assignments in the Air Force, Clark AB, The Philippines. Not long after I arrived there, the paradise it was died and a number of ugly monsters took over.

First, there was the assassination of two airmen just outside of the base by a group of lawless thugs who called themselves the NPA (New People's Army). After that happened, travel restrictions were put in place which made exploring the P.I. next to impossible. A couple of months after the shootings, a 7.8 earthquake rumbled through the area, killing quite a few, while destroying more buildings north of us than in our area. It also scared a lot of people on the base.

It hit somewhere around 4:30 pm in mid July, 1990. I had worked some overtime in the office and had gone out to the bus stop to wait for the shuttle bus to my barracks. I was talking to two Filipina women when I felt the primary wave of the quake and before I could say "Earthquake," everything was rocking and rolling. It was strong enough to knock me on my ass. I sat there on the pavement, bouncing up and down and watched pressure waves move through the building across the street. It was a cinder block building and I could actually see the waves moving the blocks up and down as the wave passed by.

I remembered seeing that same thing happen in Italy. I hadn't been at Aviano AB in the northeastern Italy more than a month or two, when an earthquake hit. It rumbled in at about 6.0 on the Richter Scale just as I was reaching for my cup of coffee. Several months earlier, the area was rocked with a series of much stronger quakes which destroyed many buildings in the area. People were a little gun shy by the time I got there.

When this quake hit, I watched my coffee cup dance across the desktop and when it clicked what was happening, I stood up. Right in front of me, about 10 feet away was a cinder block wall, part of the overall cinder block construction of the building I worked in which held my office. I was amazed then to see the cinder blocks actually bending with the seismic waves as they moved through the building. I stood there enthralled with what I was seeing until it ended, then casuallyv walked out of the building...the last person to leave it.

Well, I was watching the same thing in the Philippines and it still amazed me how it could happen and the blocks not crumble to dust. The shaking of the quake in the P.I. lasted a good minute or so. When it was finished, I stood up, dusted myself off, excused myself from the frightened women I had been talking to, and hurried back to my office. I knew I would be needed and I was. I didn't get home that night until around 3 am and was assigned as command post night shift coordinator for my office.

Things regarding the earthquake calmed down about two weeks later, and life in the P.I. appeared like it would soon get back to normal. However, because of a continuing threat from the thugs, the area of Angeles City Americans were allowed to visit was drastically reduced. Not much was available outside of strip bars and honky-tonks of various repute. But then, several months after the quakes, that area was again placed on the restricted list, as a strike by the local national employees at Clark, locked down the base. We weren't allowed off-base unless we lived off-base and no local national was allowed on base. This lasted a week or so before it was settle and things got back to a strange normal.

Christmas and the new year arrived with a bit of relaxation in restrictions most people assigned to Clark had been living with for six months. It was a welcome change. There was an incident regarding me and several "thugs," which I will most likely relate some other time, but otherwise, the holidays were quiet.

Then on April 2, 1991 (April Fools Day still for the U.S.), I walked outside the barracks to get on my bicycle and go to work. As I unlocked my bike from the rack, I looked up and towards the mountains west of the base. We were several weeks into the dry season at the time and I was curious about a plume of pure white smoke rising from near the peak of one of the mountains. I pulled out my camera and took several photos, got on my bike and went to work.

The next day, word came down that the smoke I saw the day before wasn't smoke at all, but steam. It came from a volcano, which for whatever reason, decided to activate. This volcano was between five and ten miles from the base, depending on where you were on base. But hearing that didn't surprise me, nor another office worker.

Several months after the earthquake, I began feeling some strange vibrations. These vibrations were coming from right underneath my feet and they were definitely confusing me. I would feel them for hours straight, then they would stop for a while, and again continue. One afternoon, we were in a staff meeting when the vibrations began again. I backed away from the table and looked down at the floor, then around the room and finally at the rest of the people in the room. No one seemed to be feeling what I was feeling, but there was one person who was looking at me curiously.

After the meeting that person came over to me and asked me if I felt anything. I told her and she said she has been feeling the same thing. We both knew what it was magma moving below us. The two of us were sensitive enough to feel the slight vibrations of the movement. When we mentioned it to others, they thought we were nuts and it was forgotten, but not by the two of us.

The day it was verified that Mt. Pinatubo was now an active volcano, Marge and I talked. We both thought the most likely candidate for activation would have been Mt. Arayat, an extinct volcano east of the base. But Pinatubo was good also. No one really knew anything about the mountain, so the Philippines Geological Survey folks called the US Geological Survey folks and two organizations set up a headquarters on Clark to watch the mountain.

Flash forward a couple of months to mid June. Clark AB had been evacuated, the mountain had erupted several times, and I was one 1,200 people who stayed behind to protect U.S. property and interests on base. On the day of the first eruption of the mountain, a throat-clearing blow as it was labeled by the volcanologists, a typhoon began that had developed in the Pacific began moving our way. Weather folks on base began keeping an eye on it and it wasn't long before it turned into a super typhoon. It also started making a beeline for the base.

Well, now we had a typhoon to watch, along with the mountain. Forecasts had the typhoon hitting the base mid morning sometime on June 15, 1991. Plans were made for its approach, factoring in the volcano, and in the early morning hours of the predicted date of the typhoon hitting the base, the mountain decided it had had enough waiting time. It blew just as the typhoon hit. Not only was Clark being pummeled by winds from a typhoon and ash from an erupting volcano, but the volcano's eruption was causing an earthquake. It wasn't a powerful quake, but strong enough to be felt on Clark. And it lasted hours.

In the interim, the lucky 1,200 had evacuated to the base of Mt. Arayat to wait out the eruption and the typhoon. While there, quakes constantly rumbled through the area, some strong ones, and one really strong one. Rain was coming down, mixed with volcanic ash, giving the term "raining mud" a whole new meaning. After the typhoon had run its course, and the quakes on Clark had subsided a bit, and the volume of ash being released by the mountain lowered, a new world emerged. A world of gray and of trees stripped of all leaves and a gray sky clouded with suspended volcanic ash. Towards the mountain, a wall of blackness hung and moved northward and eastward covering the closest parts of the base to it, with a wall darkness, dubbed "The Dark Side of the Moon."

These conditions lasted until the raining season began which brought lahars (flash floods of ash and debri moving down the mountain along the rivers surrounding the base). During one particular nondescript rainfall, I had dropped some people off at the main gate to the base and was heading back to my office, when as I rounded a curve, a wall of water mixed with mud and stones roared across the roadway. It took me by surprise and splashed around enough to kill the engine of the van I was driving. I attempted to restart the engine and failed. Each attempted failed and all the while, the water was pushing the van towards the curve. On the other side of the curve was a large drainage ditch about 12 feet deep. I knew if I didn't get the engine started, the water would sooner or later dump the vehicle over the edge, with me in it.

So I continued trying to start the engine. It finally caught and I continued on my way. Later, I went by the same spot I was almost stranded at and saw that some of the curbing had washed away. Whether it happened while was stuck there or not, I don't know, but it had me wondering.

Living with a volcano next door isn't fun. But it can be exciting. That was about the last strange thing that happened to me personally, but not the last to happen to the base. Lahars and mudflows had knocked down all the bridges surrounding the base, isolating our area by road. The "big water" as the Philippinos called the flows, had also eroded away the banks of the rivers and many houses and buildings, including one hospital, had fallen to the erosion. Most of the erosion was happening on the opposite side of the rivers from the base, but one day that changed.

Word came down that areas under million gallon storage tanks of fuel was causing a concern. It was possible the erosion could undermine the foundation of the tanks and cause them to tumble over, ripping open, adding an even more to the catastrophe. Luck was with us and it didn't happened, at least not while I was there. In the end, the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo caused more than just disaster to the P.I. It lowered global temperatures, destroyed crops and lands for years as ash washed down during the rainy season.

But it was a disaster like no other. It turned me into a refugee, something I never thought would happen, and gave a lot of people a new respect for Mother Nature.

I had always had that see, this was my second volcanic disaster. As for Hollywood disaster movies...well, they still bring a smile to my face. Living through a real one only they could dream up, makes life a sweeter.

No comments: