A Personal Account of the Big One (Part 1)

Up close and personal with the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011


I never imagined it would be like this. Six of us huddled around a kerosene heater in a draughty old house up in the hills, listening to a battery-powered radio for details that might give us an inkling of the scale of what had occurred, what was going on, and what the immediate future might bring. It was dark, it was cold, and every few minutes a powerful aftershock would remind us that relaxing was not an option. Certainly not tonight, and probably not for quite a while to come. No one lay down. No one slept.

Let me briefly describe where I live. Watari is a country town (pop. 35,700) on the coast of Miyagi prefecture, Japan. It has all the makings of a good life, without the crowding, noise, pollution, and social dysfunction of the city. It has multiple large supermarkets, home centers (large hardware stores that also stock some furnishings and other home supplies), some decent eateries, all the necessary medical facilities, a hot-spa inn, a fishing port and, according to the surfing community, great waves. Watari is also only a 30 minute train ride or 45 minute drive from the city of Sendai (pop. 1,030,000), where anything is possible, and from where you can get to anywhere else in no time via the Shinkansen high-speed rail network. It is, in my opinion, perfect. That’s why I moved up here from the very livable but rapidly swelling city of Yokohama with my wife and two cats in mid 2009.

On Friday, March 11, 2011, I was at home happily setting up my “studio” with a view to getting creative after a hiatus of several years. I had, in fact, just finished positioning everything exactly as I wanted it and was in the process of running a few basic tests when the rumbling began. It was 2:46 in the afternoon. We had been jolted by a fairly large tremor a few days earlier, and there were a series of small aftershocks, so I initially assumed that we were simply experiencing another aftershock that would fade out in a few moments. It didn’t. The shuddering rapidly grew in strength and amplitude as equipment and furniture, heavy furniture, began lurching around ominously.

This was no residual geological activity, it was the main event, and it was time to move. I honestly don’t remember much of the seconds that followed. I must have flown down the stairs, met the wife in the entrance hall, and hauled her outside in full autopilot survival mode. By the time we had reached a safe spot in the middle of the street there was an unprecedented super quake in progress. There is something indescribably surreal about large, normally stationary structures bucking and swaying like toys on a rickety tabletop, and the ground moving so far and with such intensity that it is impossible to walk or even stand. So we sat in the street and waited, watching in awe as our home shook, just able to discern the sound of objects crashing around within over the roar of the entire town in sickening motion. We waited for the endless minutes it took for the quake to settle down, an eternity in our minds, and then stared in disbelief at our still-standing home. The entire street was still standing. A few homes had lost some roof tiles, but most had endured without any external signs of damage, monuments to the effectiveness of the earthquake-resistant architectural guidelines adopted after the last big quake in 1978. “Big quake” is relative in this context, because the 1978 event, like several that preceded it, had a magnitude of 7.4 at the epicenter. This time it was 8.4 … no, 8.8 … and then when all the data had been gathered and properly processed it was established that we had just experienced a magnitude 9.0 super quake, the largest ever recorded in Japan. And our home, and all the other homes around us, were still standing.

Inside was an entirely different matter. The casual observer would have had absolutely no idea how my second-floor studio might have looked just a few minutes earlier, or that any of the objects strewn about the place were ever arranged into any sort of logical configuration at all. It was total chaos. The first floor was a bit better, but not by much. Cabinet doors had flung open and delicate tableware had been launched across the room with predictable results. Cabinet doors that had managed to remain closed only served to break the flying contents sooner. But in the midst of the insane shambles there were a few surprises. For some reason our top-heavy 37” LCD TV had decided it wasn’t going to budge, and on the kitchen counter stood a single rose in a small vase, unperturbed by the mayhem that had just turned the rest of the house upside down.

Then the aftershocks began. It is worth noting that the aftershocks from a seismic event of that magnitude are sizeable earthquakes in their own right. The first one came just a few minutes after the initial shock, and more followed in relentless succession, no more than a few minutes apart. That made the prospect of spending time inside the house somewhat dicey, so we simply stayed outside, nervously ducking in between aftershocks to make sure there was no chance of fire and to retrieve essential survival items such as mobile phones, car keys, and warm clothing. Although it was a relatively mild afternoon, it was still early March and the air chilled quickly as the light of day began to fade. The main lifelines – electric power, water, and most telecommunication – were dead within minutes of the quake. We sat in the car to stay warm and organize our thoughts.

Just a few kilometers away the real destruction had already begun. The earthquake itself, as impressive a display of nature’s unstoppable power as it was, was nothing compared to what was happening along several hundred kilometers of the pacific coast. In less than 20 minutes the first wave of the tsunami had rolled in, easily crushing cars and houses, sweeping the wreckage several kilometers inland, and then dragging some of it back out to sea. There is only one line of defense against a tsunami: head for the hills. Those who did so were spared, those who were too slow or too dazed to react were caught up in the roiling torrent and either drowned or crushed by the maelstrom of debris. The power of that much water moving at highway speeds is terrifying.

The quake of 1978 had generated a relatively small tidal wave. Unfortunately the parameters of that event – 7.4 magnitude at the epicenter off the coast of Miyagi prefecture and a 30 centimeter tsunami at the port of Sendai – became a sort of benchmark for the safety measures that were subsequently implemented, thus seawalls and monitoring devices were designed and constructed with capacities nowhere near sufficient for the 3/11 disaster. Equipment that was put in place to measure the height of tsunami waves did manage to relay some data before it was destroyed and in some cases completely swept away by the very phenomenon it was designed to gauge. The highest measured wave was 7.3 meters, but evidence remaining on the relatively few tall structures that were able to endure the force of the waves indicate that the highest easily exceeded 14 meters. That's enough water to completely cover a five-storey building. Later surveys revealed that the tsunami had washed up the sides of mountains to a maximum height of 38 meters.

As we sat in the car watching the TV built into the navigation system and trying to formulate a plan of action, a relative who lives about halfway between us and the ocean arrived. He had been trying to get home from his workplace to check on the family, but had been blocked by the deep water that had already inundated much of the coastal area. According to text messages exchanged with the stranded family, his house had been engulfed to a depth of about two meters and his grandfather swept away as the six others watched helplessly. The survivors had taken refuge in the upper floor of their relative new and sturdily constructed house. It must have been a gut-wrenching situation for our relative, as there was no way he could safely go to their aid. The tsunami kept coming in, wave after wave, and by early evening we could see water where there shouldn’t have been any, just a few hundred meters down the road. The prospect of tsunami damage was beginning to look very real and menacing, so we threw a few essentials in the car, locked up the house, and headed for the hills.

It was getting dark and, although the roads were not crowded, there was a steady stream of traffic flowing away from the lowlands. The power was out, so there were no functioning traffic lights. There were no lights at all, save for those on the vehicles headed for higher ground. It was an eerie and somewhat treacherous situation, especially since the road had diverged considerably from its normal state of flatness. Sections were collapsed, and there were ridges where the road had split leaving one section considerably higher than the other. Hitting one of those ridges at speed could have been disastrous, so the traffic proceeded slowly.

Unlike many others who were following the same plan of action, we actually had somewhere to go. As we drove up the mountain we passed an almost uninterrupted line of vehicles parked along the side of the road and in fields off the road, safely out of reach of the apocalypse that was now being reported in some detail by the media. That’s where they would stay at least until dawn. We continued to the peak of the mountain ridge and on into the valley beyond, to the house where we would take refuge for the night. There was no electricity or water there either, but there was a large kerosene heater and plenty of kerosene. It had become a freezing cold night. Shelter and warmth were exactly what we needed. We still don’t know the extent of the damage, and in fact we’re more or less running on autopilot, incapable of grasping the scale of events thus far. We are living in a dream, shut off from reality by limited access to information, the darkness of night, and fear.

Continued in Part II, here.