Search the Waters
They said it would be years. Then, the tsunamis came, and the seawalls fell. Malama Bay swallowed Waikīkī and met the Ala Wai, and a million dollars couldn’t buy you a breath on Ala Moana Boulevard.
On the other side of the island, in ʻAhuimanu, the damage hadn’t been as bad, but that didn’t matter to Kaimi. He had been born on the beach, his mother giving birth to him during a birthday party at Kualoa, had lived his life on the water, first with the Navy then as a boat captain for the fire department, and he knew what he had to do. After the reports of what had happened came in, he hiked over Puʻu Maʻeliʻeli Digging Hill, taking with him food, water, and two tanks of gas. It took him an hour to make it down to where he had hauled his boat ashore, a parcel of state land that his friend had managed for years. From there, he navigated out through the capsized hulls and jutting masts of what was once Heʻeia Kea Pier and out onto Kāneʻohe Bay.
By the time he rounded Leʻahi, the sun was on the horizon, casting the scene in front of him in a bloom of red hibiscus. A few hotels stood stoic above the flood, but most were halved or disappeared completely. There were other boats, the military, and the coast guard. Helicopters and drones flew overhead. But it was the bodies that made him cut the motor, each one a dull thud against the hull.
When one of the fireboats came around to ask him what he was doing there, he flashed the dog tags around his neck and lied, “I’m here to help.” They turned him away, told him it wasn’t safe, but he didn’t care. He anchored and waited, listening to radio coverage from the scene. The rescue efforts continued on into the night, but by that time, Kaimi had put on his old firefighter jacket and was able to slip his boat into the chaos.
It was difficult to hear anything above the noise of chopper blades, boat engines, and bullhorns. But as Kaimi navigated away from the luxurious rubble along Kalākaua Avenue and down the side streets, now waterways, he could make out screams and cries for help. He had brought night vision goggles, a swap meet find, and used them to sift through the shades of green.
The first person he pulled on board was James Cross. Jimmy had been living in Waikīkī for three years. He was a retired stevedore and was still collecting the checks they sent to his P.O. Box. He had a house and a wife, then he didn’t. A drunk driver took his wife. The bank took his house. He couldn’t live there anymore, so why pay? Now, it was just him and his Jenny Girl.
“She stay out dea,” Jimmy insisted. But if there was one thing that Kaimi hadn’t seen breathing yet, it was a dog.
Kaimi stuck to the areas he knew. Most tourists had heeded the warnings and had gone to their hotel rooms or to the roof tops. Locals had found themselves in traffic, only to abandon their cars and scramble on foot. Yet, some stayed. “Where was I supposed to go?” Lei asked him. She was new to the streets. Lost her job and ended up in Kakaʻako. The sweeps took most of what she owned, so she moved. She figured at least there were showers, the beach, places to keep clean. “I tried the hotels but was madness. When I got to the door, they said guests first, like they don’t have the room?”
He had found her lying out on a McDonald’s sign, a cigarette in one hand, her arm dangling between the arches. Now, she was gulping down a bottle of water and eating chips with a pair of chopsticks she had retrieved from her hair. “I came back, you know. A bunch of us did, but you know what?”
“They had locked the doors,” Kaimi answered before she could. He had heard the same thing already. At first, he wasn’t sure if he believed it, then he found a valet who hadn’t made it in on time. He got stuck on his way to the parking garage. By the time he ran back, all he found was sandbags.
“Where were we supposed to go?” Lei asked for the third time.
Kaimi didn’t have an answer. Though, he knew they weren’t all like that. Some hotels kept their doors open all the way until the first wave hit. A woman from Tacoma told him that she had been the last one in, that she had turned around and saw the water rushing down the street like rapids down a canyon. “Right then, I saw God’s face in the flood.”
“Did you pray?” one of the other passengers, a teenager with a New York accent and little tact, asked.
“I ran,” she laughed until she had to wipe her eyes. She was on the third floor when the water rushed over her head. “Thankfully, I found a window.”
Kaimi kept at it, pulling people up and taking them to rescue services or helping them troll the water for people they knew. He barely rested, taking short naps only when his vision started to blur, or his hands couldn’t hold the steering wheel steady. By the third day, one of the firefighters had given him a radio and he started to coordinate pick-ups, but those occasions became rarer. Then, on the fifth day, they gave him a helmet and an axe. He anchored his boat and started to join the efforts inside the buildings. He was part of Station 7 again, where he had worked when he first started out. In the breaks between light and darkness, when the spaces were filled with nothing but smoke and ash, he felt those ghosts come back in tremors and small gasps of breath, and he thought of what brought him there.
Breaks were brief. Every second was a second too long, so he continued to break down doors and drop into flooded hallways. When he pulled bodies out, he followed procedure, he did what he could, and he moved on to the next section to be cleared. But before he tagged the X code on the outside of the room or in front of the hole in the floor, he took the time to really look at the faces. Just in case someone asked if he had seen a mother, a son, a friend. Just in case it was his daughter he was holding but didn’t recognize.
A week after the disaster, Kaimi took a photographer from the paper out into the fray. When she asked, he said no. “There’s more to do here than take pictures.” She agreed but that wasn’t what she was there for.
“My father was working when the wave hit,” Maka said, checking the battery on the camera before checking the lens. “The Royal.”
Kaimi nodded. He knew no one there had survived.
“I just need to work,” she added. Kaimi obliged.
They spent much of the morning and afternoon touring the aftermath. The spoke in small bursts and slips of Pidgin. Most of the time, they discussed the state of things before. A month ago, rather than invest in building up the seawalls and other precautions, the state had spent 13 million dollars to add sand back to Waikīkī. There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent what had happened, but still they laughed at the irony.
“You got to look years back, decades, generations. All the cracks they didn’t fill.”
“Or filled them with.”
“Or put to the side or somewhere else.”
Kaimi nodded, but he felt the weight of the discussion in his shoulders and the rest of his body. The days on the water were heavy and he was beyond aching.
Maka took a picture of him and he looked up. She checked the display. “How long d’you think it’ll be?” she asked him. “Until it’s over.” It was the first time the future had come up.
He just shook his head.
“And what about for you?”
“I dunno, there’s still plenty to do here.”
“That’s really why you came here?” she prodded.
“That’s what I’m doing,” he was quick to reply.
“Yeah, but to just come out here like you did, to do what you’re doing,” she looked at the display again. “I’m just not so sure.”
He started the engine and they headed back.
When they got to the shelter where she was staying, a ship that had been out on the water and survived, Kaimi asked to look at Maka’s pictures. She let him borrow her laptop to scroll through everything that she had seen over the last several days. Although the Ala Moana and Waikīkī areas had seen the most damage, Ward, Kakaʻako, Iwilei were all underwater. Other areas of the island had fared better, but the damage stretched up the Leeward coast. People said it was worse on the other islands.
“There’s a list, you know, of people they’ve identified. They haven’t released it yet, but I could probably get a look.”
He understood what she was offering. “She won’t be on it,” he admitted.
“You can’t be sure.”
He shook his head. “No tattoos, probably no ID, no way to identify her.”
“They take pictures.”
“Maybe then,” he agreed.
“She lived out here?”
“Can say that.”
“Five years now,” Kaimi closed the laptop. He had only gone through one folder, but he didn’t know what he was looking for anyway. “She struggled with some things, after the military,” he clarified. “She got help, got some pills, but she didn’t like the way they made her feel. Said it was worse than when she was off them. So she got off them. On to other things, you know da kine, then other things lead to other things.”
She took the laptop and put her arm around him. “They still haven’t found my father,” she admitted. “They probably never will.”
“She’s my daughter,” he finally said, holding back the urge to collapse.
After they talked, Kaimi left to spend the night on his boat. After so long on the water, it felt uncomfortable being on stable ground. By then, he was so tired he didn’t bother to spread out the wet towels to dry or prepare the motor for the next day. Instead, he lay down on the deck and let the waves carry him to sleep.
But it wasn’t long before he woke. A scream he thought, or an echo of one. For a moment, he listened for a boat motor or a helicopter, but there was none. It was late and there was little light. Most of the solar spotlights that the rescue teams had set up were off. The noise of the day gone or limited to the crackle of radios or the buzz of drones. He closed his eyes, but he couldn’t hear anything.
Still, he started out anyway, searching with his gut. He coasted through the maze of makeshift caution signs and way markers that had gone up in the aftermath, using his goggles and a handheld flashlight to search the waters. He had gone beyond the possible range of the sound, but he continued until finally the motor died.
He had almost made it to the Ala Moana checkpoint. Below him, he imagined Ala Wai Boat Harbor, and a short distance away, Kahanamoku Lagoon. It was a wading pool for tourists, but Kaimi had brought his daughter there to watch the fireworks, especially when she came to visit him at the firehouse.
Kaimi wanted to scream. Instead, he grabbed a flaregun and climbed up onto the bow. He raised it in the air with his finger on the trigger. He just shook, his other hand holding the tags around his neck, wishing he hadn’t taken them from her, wishing he could take back the words he had yelled five years before. “You’re a disgrace,” he whispered them to himself, salt on his lips.
He stayed there until light was on the horizon. Then, he climbed down, filled the gas tank with what was left of his reserves, and drove to the shelter. He anchored there and waited for the noise and scramble of another day, and for Maka to wake up. She still had work to do.
They both did.
Donald Carreira Ching was born and raised in Kahaluʻu, on the island of Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi. His work has appeared in publications such as Rio Grande Review, Hawaiʻi Review, and Every Day Fiction. In 2015, his debut novel, Between Sky and Sea: a Family’s Struggle, was published by Bamboo Ridge Press. In 2018, he received the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, Emerging Writer. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and co-editing a special issue of Bamboo Ridge.