A Personal Account of the Big One (Part 2)

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

Continued from Part I, here.


It was perhaps the longest night of my life, and a vivid example of just how much time can be twisted by the mind. But we were lucky. If my wife and I and four other relatives hadn’t been together during those initial nightmarish hours the isolation would have been devastating. Others who were separated from family and loved ones, not knowing where they were or even if they had survived, must have been going through hell. The phones were dead. Internet access and text messaging were sporadic. There was no reliable way to make contact with anyone anywhere. And of course at this point we had no way of knowing about the people who had, for example, been washed out to sea in their cars or clinging to debris, still alive but with no hope. I can’t imagine their terror. I don’t even have the courage to try.

For almost a decade I had co-hosted a weekly talk and music show on a local FM radio station. One of the main reasons for the existence of that station and many others like it is to provide uninterrupted and up-to-date information to the public in the case of a major earthquake or other disaster. The value of that objective became abundantly clear during the disaster and for the ensuing days and weeks, with the ironic twist that I was now on the receiving end. The little battery-powered radio that spoke to us throughout the night was our link to the world (and I highly recommend keeping one handy, with at least one fresh set of batteries, in your emergency kit). The aftershocks came in merciless sequence, some of them linked to large quakes in seemingly unrelated areas of the island. The whole country was convulsing. Quakes were occurring in places like Nagano and Shizuoka, hundreds of kilometers away from the triggering event off the coast of Miyagi. Every one of those aftershocks was a new scare, and not knowing how long they would continue or whether there would be another big one was unsettling, but the relaxed voice from the radio kept us briefed about where each one was located, its magnitude, and any damage that had occurred. That thread of details was a lifeline that kept us from drowning in despair. The information available via television and the Internet may be rich, colorful, and entertaining, but radio is the bedrock and I pray that it never dies.

Although the aftershocks were continuing at a rate of about one every ten or twenty minutes, the morning brought light, a little more warmth, and a measure of renewed confidence. The urge to return home grew with the glow of the new day expanding over the horizon, so we left our refuge in the hills without joining the others in the breakfast that was offered, and headed back towards the mountain ridge that had served to separate us from the lowlands devastation for the night. Others must have felt the same urgency, because by the time we were on the road the unbroken caravans of cars that had lined it the previous night were gone. We had crossed that ridge many times before, but the scene that lay before us in the coastal plain below was new. It was as though we had made a wrong turn somewhere and were descending into unfamiliar territory. The coastline was much closer than it should have been, but from the distance there was no immediate sense of danger or emergency. It was just a picture of a totally different world. We drove home, not knowing what to expect, carefully negotiating the damaged roads and swerving around occasional piles of rubble that were once walls and tiled roofs in the town.

There were no real surprises as we as we arrived at our neighborhood. The streets were quiet and everything appeared much as it had the previous afternoon. The built-up Sendai-Tobu Expressway that was fortuitously located between us and the ocean had stopped the bulk of the tsunami, allowing only subdued waters to seep through the roadway openings that perforated it at regular intervals and form a vast but shallow lake that ended just a couple of blocks from our house.

The key turned, the door opened, and the entrance hall welcomed us as it always had. Once inside we began surveying the havoc wreaked by the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan. Despite being just a few kilometers from the coastline where buildings had simply been torn from their foundations by the tsunami, our damage was limited to some broken tableware and antiques, torn “shoji” (paper-covered partitions), and minor scratches and gaps in the woodwork that would not be a threat to the integrity of the building. But what a mess! The first step was to clear a space to sit, think, and get on with the basics, so we set to work. But we only had until nightfall to work in comfort. The electricity was still out and dinner by candlelight was our only option. “Dinner” would have to be whatever we had that could be opened and eaten as is, because cooking wasn’t an option either.

Outside, the search for survivors had begun in earnest. Every force that could be mobilized was on the way, but roads, bridges, and our main airport had been rendered useless. Deploying people and equipment in sufficient numbers was going to take time. The airport terminal, in fact, was still partially submerged, with staff and travelers trapped on the upper floor. It would be several days before the water receded and they were able to leave. Similar scenes were in progress all up and down the coast, but the resources to rescue everyone who had been imprisoned by this unexpected relocation of the ocean were simply not available. Our relatives, who had set out from the previous night’s retreat a little after my wife and I, encountered a similar problem as they approached their own home. The first floor was still under water, and it was necessary to commandeer a stray Styrofoam packing box to use as makeshift floatation. They paddled in and were reunited with the rest of the family, women and children, who were waiting on the second floor. Fortunately it wasn’t long before the group, minus our uncle, was rescued and transported to dry land by passers-by in a small boat.

The world had changed, suddenly and dramatically, and the daily routine no longer applied. We were all facing the unforeseen at every turn, and every move had to be improvised. Looking back I’d have to say that most people handled the challenge remarkably well, finding their feet quickly and cooperating with neighbors whenever possible. Personal safety and family came first, which is both a normal instinctive response and the best approach in any emergency. But as soon as the basics were secured able hands were ready to help the frail and elderly clean up their homes, and food and water were willingly shared.

Down at the coast, where the focus was on locating survivors as quickly as possible and retrieving the dead, the scene was gruesome. Japan’s own self defense forces, US forces stationed in Japan, firefighters, the volunteer fire brigade, medical teams, and the police were all involved in the search, but none other than the police were allowed to touch or move any bodies that were found. The other groups could only mark their locations until the police arrived. Sometimes rules seem to overshadow reason in this country, and this was one more example. I still don’t know whether the police were bound by the book to check each body to ensure that there had been no “foul play,” or whether there were more pragmatic accounting issues. Either way, that was the system. Several of our neighbors were volunteer firefighters who were dispatched to join the search. They would return home each day as the light was failing, red-eyed and shaken, with stories of corpses strewn around the rocks, in cars, caught in railings, and hanging in the few trees than remained standing. Forgive me for feeling relieved that I didn’t have to share their nightmares.

At home the pressing issues, shared by everyone, were food, water, and supplies, including fuel for heating and transport. Let’s start with water, the main concern for survival. In a “water comes out of the tap” world we normally don’t think about it, but water for a normally functioning household can be broadly divided into two categories: washing/flushing and drinking. The water used for washing and flushing the toilet can be a bit “grey,” but drinking water must be clean and pure, and is precious when availability is limited. We already had a bottled water habit, and the supply that was on hand could be made to last for a while. It was the other type that we lacked and needed. That problem was soon solved by a gentleman who grew vegetables in a nearby field. There was a well on his land that supplied agricultural water, and he was happy to show up every morning with enough gasoline to fire up the well pump so people from the neighborhood could fill bottles, buckets, tanks, plastic boxes, or any other container that would hold the stuff and allow it to be carried home. In a pinch that water could be filtered and boiled for drinking. We simply dumped it into the bathtub, which served as a convenient reservoir. With no way to heat the bathwater there would be no bathing until things got back to normal anyway.

We had plenty of food. Whatever was in the temporarily defunct fridge would be safe to eat as long as we used it quickly, there was a cupboard full of canned goods, and close to 60 kilograms of rice that had been given to us by relatives who grow it locally. I had previously considered that rice, sitting in sacks under the dining room table, to be a bit of a nuisance, but now it was gold. Some of it went to neighbors, and what we consumed was cooked in a pot on top of a kerosene stove that had previously only seen service as a heating appliance. That went on for a couple of days before we realized that since there is no city gas in our area, and most homes have their own propane supply, our gas cooking stove had been fully functional the whole time. Coming from the “big city” we had simply assumed that the gas supply would have shut down like everything else. The company that handles our propane makes the process of replacing the tanks so seamless and invisible that we never even thought about it. It turns out that at any time we have about a month’s supply. That’s a big thumbs-up for propane. Most houses in the nearby city of Sendai rely on central city gas, and had to go without for a month. Homes that had converted to all-electric kitchens were out of luck too.

We were actually quite lucky all around. No shops would be open anywhere, and no supplies would be incoming for a while. Nobody had any idea how long it would take for the utility and supply lines to be restored, but we were confident that we’d survive somehow. There was enough kerosene to heat the living area of the house for about a week, and we had a convection type kerosene heater that I had purchased with astonishing prescience just a few weeks before the disaster. The gas tank in the car was about half full, and a couple of battery powered LED work lights from my toolkit brought a little cheer to the long, dark nights. But the aftershocks continued, so rather than sleeping in our own bed at the back of the house we slept on futon laid out each evening in the relatively safe and warm central area, fully clothed and ready to run at a moment’s notice. The car keys remained in my pocket at all times.

And then, just as we were settling into our post-disaster routine and looking forward to the day, not too far in the future we assumed, when the world would return to normal, we were dealt a new nightmare. At 15:36 on March 12 a massive explosion destroyed the concrete structure surrounding reactor number 1 at the Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, just 80 kilometers away in Fukushima. The nuclear disaster had begun.

Continued in Part III, here.