A slow but steady siren cycled between a low pitch and a high frequency. The siren was coming from the direction of town and had to be loud enough in order for it to filter all the way up the mountain to the construction site.
Prig looked over at his work crew, "Tsunami warning!"
Instantly, the workers hopped down from their machinery, tossed their hard hats on the ground, and high-fived each other....
Prig jumped into his truck, rolled down the window and said, "It's a while since we've had one of these, Jim. I'm not about to miss it."
Thus begins the emblematic scene in TSUNAMI WARNING, Brent Purvis's screwball sequel to his SE Alaskan humorous mystery MINK ISLAND (as written about in a previous post).
Is this an accurate reaction of SE Alaskans to a threat of tsunami? I have to admit that, because we get them so frequently, we can tend to become inured to the danger. When my family first moved here we had our first experience with the consequences of living in one of the earth's most active earthquake zones. We hadn't heard a warning on the VHF radio (the jury is out on whether it would have affected our actions if we had) but we did notice an incredibly low tide. In the classic what-not-to-do-in-the-event-of-a-tsunami scenario, we all ran right down to inspect the never before exposed seabed. Some of us even swam from a drop off we hadn't known existed.
Fortunately for us, this wasn't a case of the water being sucked out by an off-shore, building destructive wave. It was simply an extra low tide, which--as a character in Brent's book accurately points out--is the usual outcome of an earthquake and tsunami warning in this area.
After another major earthquake centered in northern Alaska and felt as far away as New Orleans, we saw some whirlpool-like behavior close to my parents' floathouse, which I happened to be visiting at the time. The house cracked and shook as a series of small, powerful waves assaulted it. My dad was coming home in the skiff and, out of a flat calm bay, saw one of the waves crest in front of him. It didn't strike either my mom or I to do anything more than continue chatting and observe the mild chaos with a coffee mug in hand.
Then, on October 27, 2012 we got hit by a seven point earthquake centered in British Columbia, not that far away. We felt it very strongly and realized that for once we should probably take a tsunami warning seriously--at least, if only to see where we were at in terms of an emergency evacuation drill.
So we gathered gear--our time was not good on this--and straggled along through the chilly, windy night, climbing over rocks and drift logs, my parents both using canes, to hike up the nearest elevation, the hill our water tank sat on.
It wasn't until I was halfway up this hill that I realized I'd forgotten to pack my inhaler and I was having a full-blown asthma attack from the cold wind. Probably, I thought, a good thing to have on hand during an emergency evacuation. We arrived at the top of the hill and waited in a howling, northerly gale with windchill at 8 degrees Farenheit. It was a full moon night, with the light shining through the thrashing trees. We figured we were more in danger of a tree falling on us than a tsunami, but we dutifully watched the water in the bight to see if it suddenly got sucked out. I think we were all a little disappointed when it didn't.
We had the handheld VHF radio on channel 16 (the hailing and distress frequency) and listened to the Coast Guard give the tsunami warning every fifteen minutes. There was no chatter, no emergencies called. The radio was eerily silent.
When the deadline passed we headed for home, fairly stiff from our long, cold vigil. In the meantime the tide had come in and cut us off from the houses so I walked a half sunk log to my parents' float and then took the skiff to pick them up as they leaned on their canes, their packs at their feet, on the rocky shore. We all ended up with a mild case of hypothermia and an even worse case of feeling like our emergency response time sucked.
We heard later that there was a 6-inch wave in Ketchikan, a 2-footer in Craig (where Brent's books are set) that did some mild damage, and a five-footer in Hawaii.
Then a year later when a series of powerful earthquakes struck, centered right off Craig, we realized that it was time to make a stab at being responsible. The hill that we'd sheltered on in the previous evacuation attempt wouldn't have been high enough in the event of a thirty-foot tsunami, which the experts all predicted would be most likely in our area. Knowing that if the worst did happen that we'd be cut off from help for days or longer, we decided to build steps up our tallest hillside and put a small rowing skiff and supplies inside a tote and garbage can at the top of it.
We even tested it out during one of the big aftershocks, once again in the middle of the night, with a little snow falling. Once again our response time sucked. But hey, we did better than my brother who lives in the nearby village. He told us he felt the shock, but just rolled over and went back to sleep, figuring that if the tsunami struck, his floathouse would ride it out and he'd wake up--a la, the Wizard of Oz--in a new location. Hopefully with a better view.
Athough I think Se Alaskans will laugh the hardest at the response of Brent's characters to a tsunami warning, I think anyone who reads this book is going to wind up laughing out loud repeatedly. It is, I think, one of the most perfect examples of screwball comedy I've ever read and destined to become a classic of its type. Southeast Alaskans can all be proud....kind of.
Bent kindly answered some interview questions I emailed him and here are his answers:
1. How long did you live in SE Alaska?
I moved to Ketchikan when I was nine years old. I graduated from Ketchikan High School and went to University of Idaho, but still traveled back to my hometown during summer and Christmas breaks. I lived at home while I applied for teaching jobs, and even subbed at Kayhi a few times in the interim. I guess you can say I considered Ketchikan my home for about 14 year
2. How did you become familiar with POW (Prince of Wales Island, where his stories are set)
My family fished the east side of POW often. Some of my fondest memories happened just off the island's coastline. I remember my dad, brother and I all fighting and landing Kings (salmon)--AT THE SAME TIME. How often does a tripple-whammy happen? Being active in music in high school, I visited the Craig/Klawock area during a SE Honor Band trip. My wife and I also honeymooned at Waterfall Resort [on the island]. (Yes, I took my wife fishing for our honeymoon). with each visit, lasting memories of the seclusion, beautiful scenery and quirky inhabitants became ingrained in my memory.
3. What made you decide to write, especially mysteries?
This is a funny question to me. I am sure that Mrs. Miller, my high school English teacher, would crack up if she knew that I am an author. Let's just say that Language Arts was neither my strong suit, nor my interest while growing up. Right after my son was born (he is now 13), I remember feeling as though, if I left this world right now, there would be nothing I leave behind that he would be able to take with him. This feeling, coupled with the fact that I was a stay-at-home dad the first summer of his life, made me embark on my writing career. I had enjoyed reading funny mysteries (yes, Mrs. Miller, I have actually read a book), and given my lack of mastery of the English language, I figured I had better come up with fascinating characters and a decent whodunit. My first mystery novel took me five years to write. It was horrible.
4. How much research did you do for the books?
A writing mentor of mine, Jim Bernhardt, once gave me the best advice of my young writing career. He told me, "Write what you know." Being that I'm not quite the smartest person in the world, following this advice seriously limited me what I was able to write about. I am a musician, I like to fish, I grew up in SE AK, and I get a kick out of weird people. So my research was not extensive for these books. Certainly the geography of the island, history of some of the towns, road system, certain aspects of floatplanes, salmon canneries, rock blasting and various aspects of the Alaskan State Troopers all had to be researched.
5. Who was the inspiration for Jim and Kram?
I get asked this a lot--especially about Kram. I have friends who try to figure out who they are in my books. This fascinates me. Kram was actually inspired by a combination of several Alaskans (seven, to be exact). Some of Kram's antics are REAL. Alaskans are the best source of material on the planet. Jim share some characteristics with me (cigars, coffee, I don't drink alcohol), but he has many other qualities not related to me (I am married, I have no interest in going into law enforcement and I don't talk to minks).
6. What are some of your favorite misconceptions about SE Alaska?
I used to go down to the docks in Ketchikan during tourist season. My all-time favorite was being asked by a tourist THAT JUST STEPPED OFF THE SHIP, "What's the elevation here?" Also, snow. we get more snow where I live now (Colville, WA) than in SE AK. Ihave never actually seen an igloo.
7. What do you miss most about living in Alaska?
The people. Fishing. Alaskans are hearty, quirky--unique in every way. They are kind and respect your space and privacy. The fishing is fantastic, as long as you don't mind getting wet.
8. Which is your favorite scene in MINK ISLAND? TSUNAMI WARNING?
Mink--the humpy slingshots. I've always wanted to do that.
Tsunami--Kram in the casino with his abductors. I don't think I would want to play roulette with Kram.
9. What is the next Jim and Kram adventure about?
There will be a third book released early next summer. I can't give too much away, but let's just say--you will know a little more about the history of this strange man named Kram.
Thanks, Brent. For my complete reviews of both books, go to Amazon, under Brent's books, and read the reviews for DOA.
Photos: Top, the cover of Brent's book. Bottom, the steps we built, made from sawed off rounds of a cedar log, set in the cliffside up to Tsunami Hill.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)