Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

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!


  • Again... so glad to know that you and your family are safe plus to know that your school and your area are not really impacted by the earthquake and tsunami although for the water supply (but good that it's working again).

    Hope that Japan will recover soon.

    By Blogger Selba, at 11:15 PM  

  • Hi The Moody Minstrel.
    Phew - !!!!!!!!! what a relief to know that you can through relatively A OK and only suffered tangible damage with no injuries.

    Will e-mail you sometime next week. - Mick

    By Blogger Mick's Page., at 11:55 PM  

  • I'm so glad you and your family are safe. I hope things get better quickly, but I know it's going to be a long, exhausting ordeal. Take care.


    By Blogger Kami, at 12:50 AM  

  • Please make sure you fill some water containers to get you by further blackouts (which are quite possible given the electricity situation). They don't need to be fancy or pretty, just potable. Pop jugs, rice containers, even rinsed out spice jars, or anything will do.

    By Anonymous Kehlwok, at 10:26 AM  

  • MM, thank you for the update. So glad everyone is ok, including your FIL, albeit some cleaning and patching up to do. Take care..

    By Blogger HappySurfer, at 12:48 PM  

  • Hi!

    Thanks for this post - we have been glued to a range of news channels, including a Japanese one that we get. Incredible things happening.

    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 1:59 AM  

  • Glad to know you and family are ok... I am now in LA, trying to get on a flight home...

    By Blogger Lrong, at 3:53 AM  

  • SO RELIEVED, Moody, to know you and your family are safe. We were living in San Francisco in 1989 when we had the Loma Prieta--that was horrible, but nothing like what your country has experienced. Our hearts go out to your nation and everyone affected by this tragedy.

    By Blogger San, at 4:28 AM  

  • Very relieved here as well! Thanks for the detailed description of your experiences. Your perspective helps put a human face to the random bits of news we are getting here in the states.

    By Blogger DewKid, at 4:53 AM  

  • So glad to see you and your immediate family are OK. My condolences to your FIL and your family regarding his brother's family.

    If there is a way to help, please let me know. As a resident on the other side of the Pacific "Ring of Fire," I know that only luck and time are keeping "my side" intact. The pictures and news accounts are heartbreaking.

    Be safe, be well and stay in touch.

    Sheila Hoover

    By Anonymous Sheila Hoover, at 6:18 AM  

  • Thank you for sharing. I am in Eureka, CA and have participated in two Sister-City Junior High Student Exchange opportunities with Kamisu. I am so nervous for friends there and all over Japan. Keep posting as you are able, and thank you again.

    By Blogger Joyce, at 6:24 AM  

  • Hello, I work at Aso Elementary on Monday and Odaka on Tuesday. So, I'm glad to read that everyone is okay. I was teaching at Hanyu Elementary that afternoon on Friday. The drive back through Namegata to Itako was something. A lot of damage in Itako especially the bridge out of town. Please take care. PS Tell Taiki he still has to take the English test next week ;-)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:48 AM  

  • an incredible account of a world changing event. happy to know you and your family are ok.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:16 AM  

  • Thank you for updating, MM. Concern for you was growing after several days. So glad to hear that you are okay considering how close you are to the epicenter and tsunami devastation. All of you are in our prayers.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:33 AM  

  • Thank you for the details of life on the ground rather than through the media. The story is a nightmare for many people and our prayers are with the people of Japan.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 10:50 AM  

  • oh dear i'm happy to know that u're safe. I instantly thought of u and yr family when I heard about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan..

    By Anonymous Ă…nGe|e, at 5:11 PM  

  • Thanks for the detailed account. Hopefully it will obviate the need for me to do the same, as I can refer people to your blog. ;^)

    Glad you have weathered the storm so far and that we are not alone.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:33 PM  

  • Glad everyone is safe and well.

    By Blogger Robin, at 10:26 AM  

  • I'm moving backward through your comments on the quake (sorry I found you late!) but I was extremely relieved to hear that you and yours came through without injury or serious property damage. I'm curious about the industrial plants in the Kamisu area; it sounds like that area got hit very hard, are KOC and Shell and the others down and out? If I recall the sea wall around there was fairly high (~3 meters).

    By Blogger Andy Wheeler, at 8:24 AM  

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