Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reflections on "the BIG one"

This isn't a summary of what has happened (you can find plenty of articles online for that) or even of my experiences. Instead, I'd like to write about things I have learned from or have thought about so far as a result of the largest measured earthquake in Japanese history, in no particular order:

If an earthquake lasts a really really long time and is also unusually strong, it's probably not just an unusually long/strong earthquake.

Okay, this makes me sound like an idiot, but having spent all but the past three and a half years of my life in Canada and having never experienced a major earthquake before, when the earthquake first happened I really had no idea that this earthquake was any different from the others in my past experience. The first email I sent to a friend was just like "Wow, I've never experienced such a long-lasting earthquake before."

I found it odd that the power was out--I was at the office at the time--because usually we can turn on a TV right after to watch news about the quake, but that was really just an annoyance. Then the aftershocks starting coming and kept coming. It was only when someone dug out a radio so we could listen to the news and we heard the initial reports about a magnitude 7 earthquake (the same magnitude as the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995-though it was later upgraded to 8.4, then 8.8, and finally 9.0) and a 6m high tsunami hitting Miyagi Prefecture that I realized that this was really really serious.

Even then I didn't fully realize the implications of such a major earthquake. I remember talking with a fellow ALT during the car ride back from the office about how inconvenient the timing was since our work party for that evening had to be canceled and we both had to cancel our plans to travel to other (nearby) cities to visit friends due to the earthquake. Looking back now I'm appalled at my own callousness, even if it was springing from simple ignorance.

I think the gravity of the situation only really started to sink in when night fell. As I looked out at the darkened city from my apartment window, I saw a thick plume of smoke rising from the southwest. As I watched the smoke was illuminated with the bright red of a raging fire. Alone in my apartment, with no electricity and no cell phone service (email reception was spotty and calls weren't going through at all, although now that I think of it, if I'd tried to call the fire department, perhaps that would have gone through?) I don't think I've ever felt so completely helpless before.

View of the fire from my apartment window
The time I spent watching the rising flames (minutes? seconds?) in growing shock and horror before the night's silence was finally and thankfully broken by the sound of fire truck sirens seemed like an eternity. It was especially scary since the fire seemed to be in the vicinity of my old house--in the area where I knew some friends were staying. (My friends were OK. The fire was at an old house somewhere else.)

Always be prepared.

The time to take precautions is when things are going well and no trouble is in sight.

All new ALTs are advised to make an disaster/emergency kit containing water, food, matches/candles, a flashlight/batteries, first aid kit, copies of important documents in a waterproof container, etc. and to leave said kit in a location easily accessible if/when a hasty evacuation becomes necessary. But how many of us actually did/have done so? I'd guess that not a single Towada ALT had such an emergency kit prepared.

With Towada being so far inland, we were lucky this time to have avoided the ravages of the tsunami and to have retained use of gas and water, but who knows if we will have the same luck in another disaster? We were able to go home and fill water bottles, grab blankets, warm clothing and food before gathering at friends' houses for warmth and safety, but many many others were not so fortunate.

I will definitely never take safety from disasters for granted again, and as soon as things return to a normal state, I'm going to make an emergency kit. Heck, I'll probably make two--one for my apartment and one for my car.

Another thing I'm definitely going to get is a battery-operated emergency cell phone charger. Thankfully I always re-charge my cell once it drops down (from three) to two power bars, but with the flurry of mails coming and going after the quake, my batteries ran down pretty quickly. (Plus my phone is old and I've dropped it a number of times so it doesn't hold a charge as well as it did when I first got it.) If the power outage had lasted any longer than it did, I would've been unreachable (by email, anyway) from Sunday on.

Batteries are another thing that I need to stock up on. Pretty much the only batteries I have in my apartment are the ones in small appliances (clocks). I don't have any spares. A battery-operated radio is also an investment I plan on making.

The one thing I was really glad that I had prepared well in advance was a crank flashlight-radio. I bought it in Canada before I came to Japan just for such emergencies. (Would that I never had to use it...!)

Another thing I am grateful for is that I never let my car gas tank go much below a half tank. Very little gas is coming in right now so lines for gas are insane. On Sunday I was able to get 10L (after waiting for about 45min) to bring my car up to 3/4 of a tank, but I wasn't willing to drive around and to wait to get it up to a full tank. (In hindsight I admit that might have been a mistake since wait times have gone up probably exponentially, but at the time I also thought that my situation wasn't as dire as others so I didn't want to potentially keep someone in greater need from getting the gas they needed.)

Docomo is the best.

Anyone on Docomo was able to continue sending and receiving emails even throughout the power outage. A friend on AU stopped being able to send/receive emails maybe an hour after the initial quake until Sunday morning. Not sure about Softbank, but from the news it seemed like they also had reception issues. Since Docomo is linked with NTT (Nippon Telegraph & Telephone -- like the Bell Canada of old) I'd say they had the best service throughout the emergency. (I was even able to receive an international phone call from a friend on Friday night!!)

Even though Docomo's monthly plans are a little more expensive than other carriers, the coverage (and
coverage security) it provides is totally worthwhile.

I'm also glad that I've maintained the expense of a land line all this time (again, with NTT). Land line service was restored well before calls to/from cell phones were able to get through, so I became reachable that much faster.

Mutual assistance is essential in dire times.

Ironically enough, the topic of how a country's citizens react in times of disasters came up in a conversation with a friend not so long ago. We talked about how you can gauge the amount of faith people put in their country by how they react during emergencies. Judging by the lack of reports of looting, price gouging, hoarding, etc, people in Japan in general seem to have faith that the government and/or fellow citizens will offer assistance and aid during times of crisis. It's been really heartening to hear instead reports of people going back to their homes and making food to bring back to evacuation shelters (in Hachinohe, for example).  Selectivity of media reporting might have something to do with the utter lack of negative reports, but from my own experience, Japanese people really are that good.

I mean, there's a severe shortage of (car) gas right now, but gas prices are only 2 yen higher than they were before the quake. And to ensure that the largest number of people can get gas, many gas stations have limited each customer to 10L. To me it feels like people are really thinking about not what's best just for themselves, but for the greatest number of people.

To that end, a friend told me about how when he went to pick up groceries on Saturday (the day after the quake, when the power was still off), he heard an old woman commenting on how if she bought up everything, other people wouldn't have anything, so she would only buy a little.

I can't help but wonder if Canadians would be anywhere near as civil in a similar time of crisis?

Taking affirmative action helps ward off feelings of helplessness.

Even though I know I'm extremely lucky to be in an area only indirectly affected by the earthquake/tsunami (we can't get gasoline and other things because our supply line through Hachinohe has been cut off), there's still a lot of stress with not knowing how long we'll be cut off, if/when another big earthquake will hit (after such a large earthquake, there's apparently a chance of magnitude 7 aftershocks for up to a month afterward), how exactly the whole nuclear situation in Fukushima will impact us here in Aomori...

For me, doing small concrete things, like cutting back on my energy consumption is a way to ward off the feelings of uncertainty and utter helplessness. I've unplugged pretty much all electrical appliances apart from my refrigerator and telephone. I only keep the light on in the room that I'm currently occupying and I've been trying to sleep earlier to reduce electricity usage. As much as possible I try to wash my hands and dishes in cold water. Although I can't quite bring myself to take cold showers, I've turned the water heater down 2 degrees and I do turn off the water while I'm lathering up. I'm also not heating my apartment at all--thank goodness for long underwear and -40 degree sleeping bags, plus a natural (developed?) resistance to cold!

I'd like to think that my energy-saving efforts, combined with even the smallest economies put into practice by others in the prefecture, have helped to contribute to the cancellation of two recently planned rolling outages.

I'm also happy that I was able to give two fellow Kirita teachers who have less gas in their cars than I a ride to work today. It meant waking up at 5:30am (since I also had to prepare a bento--the kyushoku (school lunch) center didn't have enough supplies to continue with school lunch from today onward) as opposed to my regular time of 7:00 or even 7:30am, but it made much more sense than coming separately.

It's easy to say "Keep calm and carry on" but very difficult to do

Even though I've been at work every day since the earthquake (I have no scheduled school visits or graduation ceremonies to attend on Friday, so I took the day off), my mind is really not on the job. As much as I love my work, right now I just want to stay at home and read. It doesn't change the situation any, but at least reading keeps my mind in the world of the book and distracted from the doubts and anxieties of Japan's current situation. It's escapism, I know, but a necessary release valve for all the built up stress in these anxious times.

As I said before, I'm safe and living comfortably here in Towada, but the constant uncertainty is really wearing me down mentally/emotionally. As much as I try to put forth a calm/confident face, I'm really a worrier and worst-case scenario thinker. I  may choose to think positively, but it's not head-in-the-sand optimism.

My mother has asked me to try to come home right away. But I think that with the nuclear situation going on, I'd rather leave seats open for people closer to Fukushima. Aomori is over 300km away from Fukushima, so for now we're OK (don't know how badly we'd be affected in the case of a nuclear meltdown, but again, thinking positive...)

Another thing that makes carrying on as usual difficult is the guilt. I know that there's nothing wrong with me feeling upset or unhappy about my own circumstances, but I can't help but feel bad for wanting to complain about my situation when I think of the thousands of people who have been injured, have had to evacuate their homes, have lost their homes, have lost friends and/or family members or even their own lives.

It makes me feel petty and selfish to wish that I could use the heater in the morning (I'm fine bundling up at night, but it's hard to get out of bed in the mornings when my room is cold) or that I could fill my gas tank to get to work without worry when I think of how people are sleeping on cold gym floors (without the benefit of long underwear and -40 degree sleeping bags) in evacuation centres in Hachinohe, Sendai, etc. and can't get enough gas for their cars to evacuate from around Fukushima...

I know that the greater suffering of others around me doesn't invalidate my own feelings of anxiety/stress/hardship, but it's hard not to feel guilty for them when I have been so lucky here in Towada. And it's not like I feel "oh woe is me" all the time--for the most part I do stay focused on the blessings and what I have rather than what I lack, but...

But anyway. I'm safe and all the Towada and Aomori ALTs are safe and accounted for. Life here in Towada is continuing on--things may be not "as usual" but the hardships, such as they are, are relatively minor and altogether bearable. It sucks that after the warm weather a little over a week ago that the temperature has dropped (back in the low minuses at night) and it has started snowing again, but at least we're heading towards spring rather than in the dead of winter.

Prayers are very much appreciated at this time. If you're interested in making a donation towards Japanese relief efforts, here's a handy article from (for Canadians):

There's also this site (for Americans):