Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

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...


  • Now if only I could do away with this &%$#* hay fever...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:39 PM  

  • Thank goodness your FIL's brother and his family are safe!!

    By Blogger Kami, at 1:47 PM  

  • Thanks, Kami! We haven't heard from them directly yet, but another relative who lives closer to them apparently has. The pictures I've seen of their city are just heartbreaking. The tsunami reached the third floor of the city hall building, which is located a couple of kilometers from the beach. There's basically nothing left of the center of town but so much debris.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:57 PM  

  • I appreciate all the detail you're giving. It really creates a vivid picture of the situation. So frightening! As I read your posts, I realized how much I miss you, my friend. Take care and keep us updated.

    By Blogger Karen Tapahe, at 3:10 PM  

  • We are hearing very mixed reports here too - my wife clicks through the news channels (including a Japanese one) trying to get a reasonable picture. She has noticed the variation in radiation reports - Russia Today seems to be telling the worst scenarios, seeming to almost hope that this will be worst than Chenobyl!

    Keep safe!

    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 12:21 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:40 PM  

  • Happily we have stored food and water for just such an emergency and while Kimie's car is thirsty, my bicycle cares not.

    Our roof, however, lost a ridge of tiles. Good think I had it re-grouted(?) last year or we might have lost all of them. Bad design. I gather such ridges are ornamental and should be scotched in favor of a more practical design.

    Thankfully, rolling blackouts have been ended in Ibaraki for now.

    Boredom? What about CDs, DVDs and books? Remember books? How about Dad playing music and singing songs?

    Dare I mention sex? Many baby booms originate in times like these! and if one doesn't have religious convictions against contraception...

    Okay, I'll shut up now.

    Good to know you and yours are OK.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:59 PM  

  • LOL! at PandaB's comments.

    MM, so glad your UIL and family are safe. Thanks for the update. Keep safe..

    By Blogger HappySurfer, at 11:51 PM  

  • Boredom? What about CDs, DVDs and books? Remember books? How about Dad playing music and singing songs?

    If we tried to do any of those things we'd see yet another war in the house. Both of the kids have expressed certain desires and made relevant promises concerning their future goals. My wife and I have both shelled out quite a bit of money for cram school lessons and supplementary study aids as a result of those promises. Unfortunately, the cram school homework and study aids mainly seem to be collecting dust while the kids screw off during our absence (and their grades have actually been dropping). I tend to be more forgiving of such things than my wife; if she finds out the kids have done anything at home besides chores or study, she explodes, and we wind up with another difficult situation. We've already been through this several times. If the kids decide to abandon their goals, fine; we'll gladly terminate the extra study and pocket the money saved. Thus far they have not, though the dreams are clearly bigger than the motivation.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:31 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:41 PM  

  • Well, you have shattered my Norman Rockwell-esque image of your home life.

    Kendo practice anyone?

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:43 PM  

  • Hi!

    My eldest son and some of this friends are thinking of doing some fund raising to help people in Japan. I was wondering if you know of a good way for them to send their money over and avoiding western charities that seem to syphon off far too much money before it gets where it is needed.



    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 7:53 PM  

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