Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Life in the Wake of the Great Quake, pt. IV: Ye Olde Academy After the Quake

Here are a few pics I took strolling around the campus the other day:

2011 Great Quake Academy 2
This sinkhole opened in the middle of the baseball field during the quake. It's not very big, but it's quite deep...and would seem to indicate there's a hollow space under the ground. Other parts of the field turned to quicksand because of liquefaction.

2011 Great Quake Academy 5
Inside the auditorium building looking toward the lobby and library. The underside panels of the eaves outside fell off. So did some of the ceiling inside.

2011 Great Quake Academy 7
Cracks around the pillars show how the whole building rocked back and forth during the quake.

2011 Great Quake Academy 8
In the auditorium. The windows on the front of the lighting gallery dropped off along with part of the ceiling.

2011 Great Quake Academy 12
Outside the auditorium building. We had already evacuated after the first, main quake, but most of the damage happened during a huge aftershock that hit us directly twenty minutes later. We were out on the piloti, or assembly ground, near where I took this picture when those panels came crashing down. The students freaked out.

2011 Great Quake Academy 13
Looking toward the piloti, where we were gathered, from under the art building. During that first, big aftershock, the art building was literally swaying back and forth on its legs. The students panicked and crowded back away from it, but it fortunately didn't collapse. You can see how the legs are damaged, though.

2011 Great Quake Academy 15
(Hopefully I won't get in trouble for this pic.) This is a view of the main playing field, where we set up tents and makeshift survival shelters to keep the kids warm while we waited out the disaster. It was hours before any of them were able to go home, and some wound up stranded and having to spend the night (though by then some rooms of the school had been cleared for safety).

2011 Great Quake Academy 17
Irony of ironies: This extra earthquake-proof reinforcement was added in the junior high and senior high buildings in the mid 2000's after a large quake had hit Niigata. At the time, many people called it a waste of money. As it turned out, the buildings (or at least the parts of the buildings) that had the reinforcement suffered no damage. I believe the proper Japanese phrase to use in this case is, "Hora, mirou!" (It's kind of like "I told you so!")

Hopefully I'll have some pics around town to post soon.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In the Wake of the Great Quake pt. III: Joyful Moments

There are times when something small, something you wouldn't even notice on a typical day, suddenly becomes a thing of great joy. I'm talking about things like:

  • The sound of a transistor radio. During that long afternoon and evening immediately after the quake, as we hunkered down in the sanctuary of our battered school campus, it was our only link to the outside world. That night, and for the next couple of days, my family stayed huddled around one for comfort as much as for information.
  • The sound of my daughter's cell phone ringing. For some time after the quake, regular phone service was down, and mobile phone service was jammed. A quick e-mail from a worried friend of my daughter was music to all my family's ears. It meant we were also able to call an extent.
  • The sound of the refrigerator coming on. It meant that our power had been restored on the third day after the quake.
  • The sound of the well pump. With our power back, we had the use of our backup water supply and no longer had to drive out to the water distribution points.
  • The sight of my regular home page opening. Fiber optic cable service was apparently never compromised. I was able to get on the internet almost as soon as we had our power back.
  • The sight of almost five dozen notifications on Facebook. Though I happily play a couple of network games via Facebook (down from a peak of six), I admit I'm often annoyed that my feed is largely limited to game-related messages. This time, however, the list was mainly messages of concern and support from people I know all over the world. It did a lot for my mental stability in anxious times, and I can't tell you how much I appreciated it.
  • The sight of the phone line LED lighting up. For some reason, even though I had internet access, the phone still stayed down for almost another entire day. I kept my eyes glued to that one darkened LED on the router and gave a shout when it finally came on. The first thing I did was call my family in Oregon and assure them we were all okay.
  • The sight of an open gas station. All the major refineries supplying our area had been knocked out if not taken out by the earthquake and tsunami. Moreover, a lot of roads were in poor condition, making it hard to transport any kind of cargo. Panic buying of gasoline quickly wiped out the supply. For some time after that, getting gas was a matter of catch if catch can. When the shortage first started, I was lucky enough to catch a smaller station whose owners I know just as it was closing down, and I was allowed ten liters (a little more than two and a half gallons). A few days later, I spotted a small, independent gas station open on my way home, got in line, waited for an hour and a half, and got twenty liters (a little more than five gallons). That was enough to keep me going for at least a week if I avoided unnecessary driving.
  • The sound of the toilet tank filling up. We were using buckets of recycled bath water to work our toilet (or going outside and feeding the trees). After filling the toilet tank from the bucket yet again and flushing it on the fifth day after the quake, I heard the tell-tale trickle of water flowing inside. I immediately dashed to the kitchen and tried the faucet. It hissed, it gurgled, it spat, and then it rewarded me with the music of flowing tap water. The city mains were back online.
  • Getting calls from relatives. Both my wife and I have always tended to find it a bit awkward talking on the phone with relatives on her father's side of the family (especially because, in my case at least, it can be difficult following their strong Tohoku dialect). However, we found ourselves eagerly welcoming the slightest word. We were especially happy when we finally heard news about the uncle and his family who live in Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture, a city which had been obliterated by a ten meter high tsunami less than half an hour after the quake. All of them were safe, including one who had been caught up in the tsunami and had survived by clinging to a floating log.
  • Seeing the faces of students. One week after the quake, we opened the school just long enough for students to come and get their things, which had remained in the classrooms till then. Some were unable to make it, but it was a welcome relief to see the ones that did.
  • Finding food on store shelves. Gasoline wasn't the only thing that became scarce. Panic buying and shortages of certain goods had led supermarkets and convenience stores to shorten their hours and ration some items. One week after the quake, I was happy to be able to go into a supermarket in Kashima after work and actually find meat, fish, and milk, all of which had become rare and precious. On the next day, it was announced that bread rationing had ended, and I was able to replace the one loaf (a lucky grab on my wife's part) that had helped sustain us during the previous week.
  • Seeing gas stations open for regular business. Today, two weeks after the quake, I drove by the biggest self-service gas station in my home area on my way to work...and was surprised to see that not only was it open, but there was no line, and people were pumping their own gas, i.e. no rationing. Last night I saw similar sights at most of the smaller gas stations along my regular route. This is a very important sign that things are returning to normal.
We're not fully recovered yet, and some areas are still in a very dire condition, but we're getting there!

Oh, and by the way: Ibaraki milk and vegetable produce has shown a trace of radioactive iodine contamination thanks to that wrecked nuclear plant up north, but you'd have to consume a ton of it for it to pose any health risk. In other words, IT'S NOT DANGEROUS!!!!!

Have a nice day!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In the Wake of the Great Quake, pt. II

Today saw the arrival of yet another small miracle: the restoration of our running water, which had been out for five full days. We were fortunate in that we were able to use my father-in-law's well (as long as we had working electricity), but it's nice to be able to cook, wash, and use the toilet at home again without having to run next door with a bucket. The news that my uncle-in-law in Rikuzentakada (a city in Iwate Prefecture erased by the tsunami) and his family are safe means that pretty much all members of the extended family are accounted for. Things are slowly but surely returning to something that might pass as normal. Still of concern are:

  • Aftershocks - They're not coming as often as they were, but we're still getting rocked a few times every hour. The scary thing is that they're actually happening in seemingly random places all over the northern half of the country - and some of them have been strong enough to cause damage in places. There's just no knowing whether we might suddenly get another big one.
  • The weather - A lot of houses, including mine, suffered roof damage. My FIL and I covered the gap with a tarp attached to a frame lashed to the house and anchored with sandbags. Unfortunately, during the rapid, chaotic change from winter to spring this time of the year, strong winds and sudden rains are common. We've already had to go up and repair the patch once...despite an even more ominous problem:
  • The Fukushima Nuclear Plant - At this point it's hard to separate fact from hype, and there's also no knowing whether we're hearing the whole story. The plant was designed with a comprehensive set of safety measures, but the one thing they never bargained for was a tsunami (even though the plant stands in an area with a history of tsunami strikes!). The initial quake caused an automatic shutdown, as it was supposed to. However, the backup diesel generators that were supposed to keep the cooling systems going got taken out by the tsunami, and the emergency batteries were only good for 8 hours. The Self Defense Force quickly brought in truck-mounted generators, but (cue Benny Hill background music) the connectors weren't compatible. They were trying to jury-rig a connection when the first explosion happened. That blast was apparently caused by hydrogen built up inside the building, and the reactor remained safely contained. Giving up on the generators, the plant crew went to their suicide last resort: pumping in sea water. However, they were apparently not able to keep ahead of leaks in the pipes, and a second reactor blew its top. That one (they say) also stayed contained, but the blast damaged another reactor, one which had been under maintenance. A storage pool containing spent fuel rods was apparently opened to the elements, and radioactive steam escaped. Now they're saying that an explosion has happened in the one remaining reactor at the site, and they're speculating that a meltdown may be inevitable. The radiation leak led to the evacuation of about a ten mile radius around the plant and a warning to people within a 20-mile radius to stay indoors. They're saying that the radiation levels in my area peaked at less than 10% that of a typical chest X-ray. However, a professor at one of Japan's foremost science universities phoned the principal at my wife's school (an old friend of his) and told him that potentially harmful levels of radiation had been detected as far away as Yokohama, which is 100 miles southwest of us (i.e. we're between it and the plant). The news is still reassuring us that we're in no danger, but at this point I'm not sure what to believe.
  • Rolling blackouts - Because of damage to power plants and to the power grid, TEPCO has instituted a rotating schedule of blackouts until further notice. All parts of the Kanto Plain are told to expect three to four hours of shutdown per day. This has seriously disrupted both transportation and business. However, perhaps the worst part of it is that TEPCO keeps NOT instituting scheduled blackouts. In other words, we never know if our area is going to get shut down at the indicated time or not, which can be awfully frustrating. Stores are moving their perishables into cold storage (or dumping them) only to find that the power stays on. On the other hand, being smug is never a good idea, because one can easily find oneself trapped in a gridlock with all the traffic lights dead.
  • Gasoline shortage - Wouldn't you know it; the main gasoline refineries serving our area are in Sendai (near the epicenter of the quake and pretty much trashed), Kamisu (damaged by the quake and tsunami and suffering from compromised access), and Ichihara (suffered multiple explosions during the quake). Those gas stations that are able to get supplied are having to deal with long lines of panic buyers. Most are selling limited quantities only. Our vehicles all have enough to last us at least a week, barring any unforeseen travel, but things could get ugly fast if things don't get moving again. Ironically, I'm probably the only one who really has to worry about this; my job requires a 25 kilometer (16 mile) commute.
  • Staple shortages - The supermarkets are faced with a similar problem. Some goods, such as toilet paper, are currently out of supply because the manufacturers are either out of commission or unable to truck through. The biggest problem, however, is that people are panic-buying and hoarding supplies of food and basic goods, meaning stores empty fast. We pretty much have to snap up what we can when we can. We're not in any immediate danger, since we already had a good supply stocked up when the quake hit, but again, things could get ugly fast if the infrastructure doesn't get moving a bit more normally soon.
  • Boredom - All the TV channels are understandably dominated by news updates, and I prefer to keep them on. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the commercial slots have been bought out by disaster preparedness agencies and insurance companies. We keep hearing the same jingles over and over and over and over again. And with all school activities and cram schools down for the time being, and unnecessary travel out of the question, the kids (and everyone else) are going stir crazy. Yes, I'm well aware that we've been very fortunate, and I know that things can still get a lot worse fast, but the psychological issue is not something one can prepare for very easily. All we can do is try our best to grin and bear it...and live from day to day. Hopefully the kids won't kill each other.
As I typed this, we got hit by a massive aftershock centered directly in our area. It was rated Lower 5 on the Japanese scale (incompatible with the Richter Scale as it is based on damage-causing potential rather than pure kinetic energy). By contrast, the 2nd shock we felt last Friday, the one that caused all the damage, was rated Upper 5. This one only knocked over a few books, thank goodness, but it's enough to remind us once again that the danger is far from over. I'll continue to count my blessings...and be thankful for all the support.

2011 great quake 1

Here's a view of the home of one of our next-door neighbors, showing the tarp they've put over their damaged roof. They've already had to reset it twice on account of the strong wind and aftershocks.

2011 great quake 2

Here's a view of the upper section of my house. The lower section has a stainless steel roof (like my FIL'S house at left), and it's undamaged. The upper section has a traditional tile roof, and it lost its cap. As you can see, we've covered it with a tarp lashed to a frame which is in turn lashed and anchored. It has held so far. Hopefully it'll stand up to these winds...

Maybe I'll go out and take some more pics if the gasoline situation - and radiation alert - calms down a bit. Until then...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In the Wake of the Great Quake

6th period on Friday was drawing to a close, as was the school year. It was my last time to be working with that particular 9th grade class, so I started to head around to the front to cap the lesson with a farewell activity I'd planned. That's when the tremor started.

Japan is, by nature, a very geologically active country, so tremors are a part of life here. However, this particular one seemed to be a bit stronger than most, rather like one we'd inherited from Miyagi Prefecture not long before. As the class reacted to the jolt with the usual hoots of surprise, I sarcastically joked, "What's Miyagi doing to us now?"

But instead of fading away in a second or two as usual, this tremor kept going...and kept getting stronger. Soon the windows were rattling in their frames and items of furniture were starting to move.

"Uh oh," I said.

The seismic throttle just kept opening wider, and it was all I could do to keep my footing as the floor bucked like a boat in a storm. The humored surprise among the students started to turn into genuine fear as we could see the very walls and ceiling starting to bend.

"Teacher," said one of the boys, "this is bad, isn't it?"

"Very bad," I replied with a forced laugh. Then I ordered the students to get under their desks. Struggling to stay on my feet, I held on to the new flat-screen TV and the server to keep them from falling on somebody. The shaking just kept going on and on for the better part of a minute (which seemed more like an hour) with no sign of letting up. Then, without warning, it just dimmed down to a stop. As the students emerged with dazed looks on their faces, the evacuation bell went off. (Ironically, they'd had an evacuation drill just the day before.) I quickly ordered them to clear the building and then did my best to keep them from bolting out in a panic.

The entire student body assembled up on the piloti, a brick-floored area on the upper half of the giant courtyard formed by the circle of school buildings. The excited chatter stopped abruptly when the principal took the mike to address them, and what he had to say was grave.

The quake had indeed been centered off of Miyagi Prefecture to the north, and it had been huge. We would later hear that it had been nearly 200 times as powerful as the Great Hanshin Earthquake that leveled parts of Kobe in 1995. Indeed, it had been one of the most powerful earthquakes in all of recorded history.

He was still speaking when the next quake started. We thought it was just an aftershock, but it turned out to be a separate earthquake centered in our area, one of many set off in rapid succession like a string of firecrackers as a chain reaction touched off by the first quake spread along the fault system. It hit us even harder than the first one did. We watched terrified as the art building right in front of us swayed crazily on its legs, but fortunately stayed solidly on them, and then a whole section of roof came tumbling down off of the auditorium building. After that some students were in hysterics, and it was all we could do to calm them down.

Not long after that, the principal called the teachers together for an update and then addressed the students again. We were very fortunate, yet the situation was grim. Ye Olde Academy is situated atop a rocky bluff that is the highest part of Kashima City. Although we'd lost our running water and both regular and cell phone service was down, we still had electricity, and damage was only slight. All around us was a much bleaker picture. We could see smoke rising from fires that had broken out in several locations. The city of Kamisu to the south, situated on a giant sandbar, was torn to pieces, and most of its roads were impassable. The same was true of parts of Itako, to the west, and Hokota, to the north. The Rokko Bridge (which I've called "the stupidest bridge in the world" in earlier posts) had collapsed, and both Jingu Bridge and the Omigawa Bridge had damaged pylons. All the trains were halted, and the buses were stuck unable to get confirmation from their controllers. We were also told that tsunami were on the way...and were expected to be at least several meters high. One thing was clear: we couldn't send the students home. They were safest there in the academy. At the same time, however, we couldn't let the students go back into the buildings as aftershocks were hitting every few minutes, and though all the structures were still intact, we couldn't be sure of their safety.

The sun sank lower in the sky, and the temperature began to plummet. While the teachers wore themselves ragged trying to explain to the students repeatedly why they couldn't go back inside for their things, the boys in the senior high rugby team got busy crafting emergency shelters out of hockey goals and tarps. Meanwhile, members of other sports teams generously distributed their teams' jackets, blankets, and tents, and all available faculty hands went inside to fetch lab coats and any cushions or mats we could find. We thus set up a sort of tent city out on the main playing field and kept the kids warm until their parents were able to come and get them. As the night wore on, however, it became clear that quite a number of kids, mainly ones from the cities of Kamisu, Choshi, and Mito, were stranded. Some of the faculty went into the cafeteria and whipped up a most welcome batch of onigiri (rice balls) and tea for everyone. A decision was also made to use one of the gyms as a shelter, so the kids were relocated inside. As it got even later, the maintenance staff declared the administration building safe, so sleeping mats were set up in the main conference room and English and music classrooms (which are heated, thank goodness). Those members of the faculty who didn't live near the campus were given leave to go home, so I gratefully hopped into my BLUE RAV4 and headed out.

Things didn't look so bad at first during the drive home, but once I got away from the bluff and headed north along Lake Kitaura, suddenly everything went totally black. There was no power at all ahead or on either side, even across the lake. The streetlights were all down, as were the traffic signals. There were also occasional wrinkles and rips in the road itself. Luckily, in the late hour, there was virtually no traffic. The Kitaura Bridge was also thankfully intact, so I was able to make it home okay...only to find the house stuck with no power, no water, and no phones.

That night, and all the next day, we basically camped out and hoped for the best, though things looked bleak. I'd been asked to come in and work on Saturday, but I woke up feeling terribly sick and so just stayed put. The city government was still able to use their PA system, and the announcement was given that neither electricity nor water was expected to be available any time soon. We still had use of our gas cooker, but the only potable water we had was the meagre water rations that were distributed to each household. Afraid to open the fridge, we lived mainly on nuts, dried fruit, and crackers. We also used leftover bathwater to flush the toilet. I used an adapter in my car to recharge my dead cell phone, but I still wasn't able to call out. A lot of things had fallen off of shelves and smashed, and lack of the use of our vacuum cleaners meant some rooms were best kept off limits. We therefore stayed for the most part in our living room and dining room glued to a transistor radio listening to the dark news about the hell that had broken loose elsewhere. Meanwhile, aftershocks kept coming anywhere from a few minutes to only a few seconds apart, but fortunately none of them were big enough to matter. None of it made it easy to get a good night's sleep.

Sunday brought one thankful development: our power was restored. That meant that our auxiliary water supply, the well we use for the bath and utility room, was now available. (The town had tried very hard to get us to cap it off for good, saying the mineral content of the water was just a bit too high to be safe, but my FIL had thankfully been too much of a cheapskate to give in.) That also emboldened us to try to deal with the most serious damage we'd suffered; like so many people in our area, we'd lost the decorative cap on the tiled roof of the upper section of our house. That meant that there was a gap in the tiles that could be a problem if it rained. My FIL and I left to buy some needed supplies, and we found all the hardware stores crowded and nearly sold out of everything. There were also long lines at the gas stations and supermarkets, so we were thankful we didn't have to go to either. We were somehow able to get what we needed, so we spent the rest of the day putting a tarp over the gap in the roof and anchoring it down enough to last until we can get a roof repairman. Then we had the first square meal - and very welcome first bath - we'd had in days.

Even with the restoration of our power, it was a while until our phones came online and I was finally able to call home and access the internet to relieve the fears. We were then finally able to turn on the TV and see what people on the other side of the ocean had seen first. We had indeed been fortunate. The Kashima Port area had been hit by successive tsunami that had gotten up to a couple of meters high. A little further north, the picturesque coastal town of Oarai had been struck by tsunami a full four meters (thirteen feet) high, though fortunately only a few people had been killed. Things got exponentially worse the closer one got to the epicenter of the quake; up in Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate Prefectures, whole towns have been more or less erased, with only scattered piles of muddy, matchstick-like rubble left to mark their passing. Among them is the sleepy city of Rikusen Takada, Iwate Prefecture, my father-in-law's hometown; just a few minutes ago we saw a video taken on the scene by a fireman there while his crew desperately encouraged people to flee to higher ground as a giant wall of water swallowed up the whole downtown area. There's nothing left. My FIL has a brother living there with his wife and kids, and we have no idea of their fate.

To make matters worse, they fear that a nuclear power plant in Fukushima City suffered a meltdown and exploded. In any case, Tokyo Power has announced that they no longer have the capacity to provide enough power, so we're all going to have to deal with rotating blackouts until more plants can be brought back online.

Meanwhile, closer to home, it looks like most schools, including Ye Olde Academy, are going to have to cancel their graduation ceremonies. We're also faced with terminating our Big Annual Concert since the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall is currently being used to house evacuees. It's usually good for the school year to end in a memorable way...but not like this.

All I can say is that we should never take ANYTHING for granted. I can't tell you how much I now appreciate such things as being able to brush my teeth or take a shower, being able to use a toilet, having a warm meal and a cup of tea, being in a comfortable home secure from the weather, being able to get what I need when I need it, or being able to get in touch with loved ones to be sure they're safe. We don't really know how blessed with luxuries we are until they're suddenly taken away, and then we're quite often not prepared to do without them. That's why it always helps to plan ahead and have an alternative ready just in case.

I'm also very thankful for...and deeply touched by...the unexpectedly huge outpouring of concern on my behalf I saw on the internet once I was finally able to get back on it. You people are indeed the best, and it's good to know that I'm never really alone no matter what. God bless you all!