Chasing Down The Muse: When disaster strikes ...

Punctuation marks.

Exclamation points!


The oft-overused comma.


We use these tools to construct language sets that define our lives. We mark them by events — some personal, some global — that affect our psyches in unforgettable ways.

Our first kiss. Graduation. Marriage. The births of our children.

An accident. A hospital stay.

Earthquakes. Tornadoes. Mudslides.


How often does someone ask you, “Where were you, or what were you doing when ...?”

Depending on your generation, the shared punctuation marks come at events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the game-winning home run of Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series, the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana, the horrific assault of 9/11.

Pearl Harbor: I wasn’t yet born.

John F. Kennedy: The patio outside the library at Laguna Beach High School.

1988 World Series: I actually was there, in the stands, and in fact predicted the home run just before he swung the bat.

Charles and Diana: I didn’t pay much attention, but the rebroadcast processional was beautiful.

9/11: Watching the morning news in my family room before a not-to-be-taken walk with Cherril Doty.

When my mother’s house slid down the hillside in Bluebird Canyon, I was eating breakfast. The emergency sirens were relentless. The helicopters hovered over her neighborhood. She didn’t answer her phone. I turned on the TV, and there it was. Her house. A jumble of timbers amid a massive earthen upheaval. I ran the 12 blocks without a single thought of my knees or my feet. I can replay the mental tape with unerring and minute details, as all energy shifted to finding her, to safeguard her.


While the Laguna landslide wasn’t a global event, photographs of her shattered home were reproduced on the cover of the New York Times. It was local but for some of us intensely personal, and our memory records the incident with a different determination.

When the earthquake struck Chile, Laguna did not share in the catastrophic shift of land and buildings. But I’m sure that most of us tapped into our memories of the Northridge or San Francisco quakes, our own canyon mudslides and the Laguna firestorms.

Photographs of broken buildings boggle the mind when they are distant. Our intellects grasp the house-of-cards scenario, but we have to turn inward to develop a conceptual relationship.

Laguna had 31 houses damaged in the Bluebird slide. Chile has more than 500,000. We found homes and shelter. They are sleeping on the streets.

The possibility of tsunami in the aftermath of Chilean quake drove the news. Cameras shifted from images of ruined buildings in Santiago and Concepcion to the placid coastline of Hawaii.

After massive walls of water — up to 100 feet high — swept through Indian Ocean in 2004 following the Sumatran earthquake and killed 230,000 people, we developed a new understanding and respect for the power of the Earth’s movement to generate changes in the sea.

What scientists knew, what the ocean sensors registered, were seismic driven shifts in the water levels following the Chilean quake. What they could not predict was the amplitude — the rise and fall — of the potential chain of waves.

Hawaii went on mandatory beach-level evacuation. Fear punctuated the morning with a projected arrival time based on an understood speed of travel. The potential for damage across the Pacific was palpable. Alerts were issued for distant Japan and coastal California.


As cameras panned from one Hawaiian beach to another, TV newscasters interviewed evacuees who were sipping mai tai’s and basking on sunny hilltop slopes. They seemed completely nonplussed. Those of us with televisions plugged to CNN and held our breath.

Gratefully, the tsunami never materialized, at least not on our national slopes. At one point, there was a measured retreat of water in Hilo Bay of about 3 feet, but there was no surge response wave.

What the cameras missed, with focus on swaying palms, what they did not see or yet know, was that an entire village on the Chilean coastline had basically been swept away.

The Juan Fernandez Islands, about 400 miles off the coast of mainland Chile, were inundated by waves reported in excess of 130 feet. In the coastal towns of Illoca, Pelluhue and Tubul, able residents ran for their lives. The first waves hit in minutes. The larger ones came ashore within an hour.

It was dark. They likely never saw them.

What I noticed in Laguna was ... nothing. Not even a ripple.

It was hard to imagine the sea in a frenzy and I was grateful that our fears of tidal devastation had been allayed. Only hours before the earthquake struck, I’d surfed with a pod of dolphins on glassy seas, and kayaked in Dana Point with another frolicking trio.

Forever dolphins and the Chilean quake will be tied in my memory. My own punctuation mark on an incident that could just as likely have happened here.

Both Chileans and Californians live on slippery slopes. We share the ring of fire geography and are constantly reminded of the shifting nature of the land beneath us.

Which reminds me: My earthquake preparedness kit is seriously out-of-date and needs to be replenished. How about yours?

CATHARINE COOPER loves wild places. She can be reached at