Monday, March 14, 2011

After the quake

Sendai, 26/02/2011 (NASA satellite shot: before the tsunami)

Sendai, 12/03/2011 (NASA satellite shot: after the tsunami)

We awoke on Friday morning and switched on the PCs, as we do every morning, and the news of the quake started coming in - shortly after it had first hit. It continued throughout the day, with my wife fairly desperately trying to get hold of her family who live in Yokohama. Once confirmed that they were alive, we got caught up in the rolling news cycle, which has been flowing ever since then.

It's absolutely horrific to see the devastation that has been wrought on parts of the country, reminding her of the images of Kobe in 1995. I've felt fairly speechless about the whole thing and have just been trying to provide whatever comfort I can. Having spent almost five years of my life in the country and with a large number of my friends still there too, I'm also affected by what I've seen, but couldn't begin to measure up to what she must be going through. I experienced quakes when living there, but nothing like this. Then again, neither has anyone else alive in Japan either, by the sounds of it.

Google have set up a useful crisis page, with a button for donations to the Japanese Red Cross - I've been directly people to that page and asking others to make donations to help with immediate relief and recovery efforts. I would encourage readers of this blog to click on the links and make a donation of whatever size. Japan may be a very technologically advanced nation in many ways, but this is the worse quake it their history and they deserve all the support of the international community that they can get right now.

An American friend of mine who lives in Tokyo and works for an international theatre company emailed the following report to his friends and family, and gave me permission to republish it here. Some of the news might now be out of date, but it gives a flavour of the day it hit for those 200km away in Tokyo and how things are playing out now:

First, all of the members of Tokyo Novyi Repertory Theater are doing good considering the circumstances. For those of you who know Nitta-san, the producer of the theater in Yuda in Iwate prefecture, he was able to get through to us tonight, and told us that the cell phones are working; however there is no power or water in Iwate prefecture. Otherwise, he and his wife are alive and well.

Here is the update from Tokyo. I have typed this up over ~3 hours on Saturday night Tokyo time in between a couple of trips to the store and watching the news. And the news is coming in fast and furious and is not pleasant...

There is quite a lot of apprehension right now about the huge explosion at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture north of Tokyo. It just came across on the news that the explosion was the outer containment section of the reactor, that it was a hydrogen-based explosion and that the core is not in danger of exploding. The spokesperson also said that they are now pumping seawater into the reactor to cool it down. Everyone here certainly hopes the core is able to be cooled. Facing a worst case scenario is not something we would like to do. Iodine is now being passed out to citizens within the 20km evacuation area surrounding the plant. Fukushima is ~150 miles north of Tokyo.

In addition to the reactor problem, and to a lesser degree, there is a large fire in a refinery in Chiba that is rumored to be sending large amounts of pollution into the air in and around Tokyo. We have been advised to limit our time outside, to cover up our body, and to use umbrellas if it rains to prevent further exposure to contaminants.

Rolling black-outs throughout Tokyo could begin tonight as extra power will be sent north to Sendai and Iwate to assist with the rescue efforts.

The stores have been cleared out of most food and all water as people here are hunkering down. Yoko and I have a solid supply of both plus other needed life supplies.

We have been getting regular earthquakes. I really don't know if they can be called aftershocks as they are fairly large on their own. Many have been level 5-6.5. In fact, we just got another 6.0 as I typed that last sentence that was centered off the coast of Japan near Fukushima. We just spent a few minutes bouncing around lightly.

Yoko has some kind of alarm on her phone that notifies her when there is an earthquake about to hit, and it went off several times last night while we slept. The alarm sounds somewhat like the alarm on a submarine when one of those vessels is submerging, so it definitely woke us up. ;-)

A few friends in Tokyo proper have reported no water, so they are getting drinking water delivered by their local authorities on a daily basis.

Several thousand people are missing in the prefectures of Miyagi and Iwate, and it does not look promising...


The experience of being in an earthquake this big was certainly mind blowing. I was working on the computer at the elementary school where I work part-time, and heard the 'quake before I felt it. I was sitting next to a window, so I moved away to stand next to my desk. It started very gently, and we thought it would be just an ordinary Tokyo light tremble. In fact, one of the teachers, Nishiyama-sensei, saw the concern on a co-worker's face, smiled, winked and said "Daijobu. Dai-ai-ai-ai-jobu (basically, "No problem. No pro-o-o-o-o-oblem."). The intensity suddenly ramped up, a loud "BOOM! BOOM!" started, the building began rolling around, Nishiyama-sensei's expression changed drastically and we all dove under our desks. The school rattle and rolled, and withstood the earthquake very well. Only a few ceiling tiles came down. We have earthquake drills every two weeks or so, so everyone was prepared, and the teachers, staff and students calmly moved out onto the field once the earthquake ceased. The kids were really amazing. The students from one of the 5th grade classes walked out in file through the teachers' room, smiled and said hello in English as they passed and even offered a few high fives. While we were on the field a large aftershock hit and kinda freaked us all out. Then a regular announcement started that continued for the next two hours. A long wailing siren blared followed by this deep, creepy, computerized voice that boomed out over loudspeakers all over the area in both Japanese and English, "This is a tsunami warning. Please move to higher ground immediately." I felt like I was in a Godzilla movie. Beware the monster...The area where the school is located (Takanawadai in Minato-ku) is on top of a tall hill, so we were in one of the safest areas of Tokyo in case of a tsunami.

Over the next hour, parents and grandparents came to pick up the kids, and then it was just the teachers and staff who were left. While we were sitting in the teachers' room, after the students were gone, we watched the news and saw the tsunamis hit Northern Japan. At the same time a really large aftershock hit, which might have been the level 7.1 earthquake listed on the USGS site. After that things, calmed down significantly. The authorities recommended that all of us stay, but I really wanted to get home to Yoko. So, after sitting around for another 90 minutes of fairly quiet time, my American co-worker and I decided to walk down to the nearest train station to find out the status of the situation as the internet and TV reports were vague about train stoppages. When we got to Shinagawa station, we saw a mass of people in various states of standing around. There were approximately 200-300 people lined up to use the pay phones, another couple hundred lined up at the taxi stands and a huge mass of people sitting and standing quietly in the vast station. We tried to get information from station staff and other people to no avail, and then around 6PM an announcement was made that all trains were offline for the remainder of the day and possibly the next. After a short discussion, we decided to make our way on foot to our respective areas.

The walk home was kinda fun. We walked from near Shinagawa station in southern Tokyo to Nakano-Sakaue mostly via Yamate Dori (avenue). During the first hour there were so many people that I was literally shuffling pressed against the person in front of me while making our way to the next station in Osaki. In Osaki, we stopped to use the toilet at a convenience store, and pick up some snacks and water. The line for the toilet was about 30 minutes long and the shelves were mostly bare of food (we were able to get a few bags of chips). We saw a group of salarymen, who were probably either staying at the office or in a hotel, buying a boatload of booze. They had a rack of beer, two bottles of whiskey, snacks and soda, and appeared to be having a great time. Once we were done with our pit stop we continued on our way with thousands of other people. I want to emphasize that I am not exaggerating the number of people. Thousands. The sidewalks were full and in some places the people would just take over lanes of the roadway. Automobile traffic was barely moving, and, we had no desire to catch the buses crammed with people stuck in traffic that we were passing on foot. The people we encountered were generally light-hearted and orderly. Everybody just wanted to get home. We passed a few local bicycle shops, and they were each doing brisk business with upwards of twenty or so customers in each shop. Several restaurants, condominiums and apartment buildings set up rest areas for people with water, warm drinks and access to toilets. My admiration for the Japanese people increased massively with this experience. The behavior of people was pure grace under pressure. I saw only causing a problem the whole of my journey.

My cell phone battery had died prior to my departure from the school. This was not a problem for phone calls as those were not going through, but it was a problem for email 'cause that was working. We passed many pay phones with lines of 40-50 people before we found a phone with one lone person using it in Naka Meguro. I was able to reach Yoko on our land line, we updated each other after no contact for 4 hours or so, and then it was off to complete our journey. We finally arrived in Nakano-Sakaue around 10:30PM. My co-worker was exhausted and had decided to find out if there was room in a hotel. Luckily, we bumped into another teacher we both knew, and he told us that one of the subway lines had just started running. This allowed the co-worker I had journeyed with to take a train to within one station of her home. I was a mere 5 minutes from my home in Nakano-Sakaue. Waiting for me was a smiling wife and a hot meal.

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