Monday, March 14, 2011

I'm a survivor

I'm currently at school, but it has been closed to students, so there's nothing for me to do. For the first time, I'm starting to feel frustrated at my impotence to do anything. There's a disaster unfolding a couple of hours down the road, and I feel that as a Japanese public servant with no dependents to take care of, I could be doing more to help than sitting in the staffroom of a closed school. But of course, I understand that rescue efforts must be left to the professionals, and that well-meaning random punters getting involved would likely be more of a hindrance than a help. However, there is news coming through of ALTs in Fukushima and Miyagi who need places to stay. Though petrol is now very hard to come by, I have two-thirds of a tank and a large and well-situated house, so I'm on standby to offer my assistance.

Anyway, this seems like a good time to recount my personal experiences of the disaster. This might sound a bit weird, but I actually wrote a blog post immediately following the initial quake. You see, all the teachers were busy following their well-rehearsed emergency protocols - getting students to safety, checking the building, and so on. I had no role in this, so I thought it was best just to stay at my desk (or under it during the bigger aftershocks) and not get in anyone's way. So, the following was written on Friday afternoon. Bear in mind that at this point I had no idea of the enormity of the crisis.

I just experienced my first properly scary earthquake. In fact, as I write this, the aftershocks are still coming, the power remains out, and a calm but urgent female voice continues to repeat something from the emergency warning system. My adrenaline remains pretty elevated too. We had a decent-sized quake two days ago, but evidently that was just a foreshock.

The first we knew of today's tremor was a strange alarm sounding from someone's mobile phone on their desk. Clearly, this was an early warning telling us a big one was coming, and we would do well to seek refuge as a matter of some urgency. But I didn't realise that, and just thought it was a particularly annoying ringtone. Then the lights flickered, and moments later the room started shaking, gently at first. The intensity of the heaving steadily picked up, and people started scrambling to secure the plasma screen and the photocopier. I'm no earthquake expert, but I've had drills for this kind of situation, and I'm pretty sure that hiding under something should be one's first concern, not propping up consumer electronics. But I didn't want to be the first to cower under a desk. Then the lights went out, the school's warning system kicked in to tell us something was going down (no shit, Sherlock) and some panicked looks flashed across the faces of my fellow teachers, many of whom started semi-squatting beside desks, ready to dash under at the first sign of trouble. Glancing out the window, I saw trees thrashing around as if there was a gale, but it was the ground rather than the air than was perturbing them. Just as I was starting to seriously wonder about how much shaking a building could take before it collapsed, the quaking started to subside. The room still moving sickeningly, the teachers took this moment to mobilise to protect their students, leaving just me, the head and vice-head in the staffroom, alarms blaring. The duration of the quake was the really impressive/scary thing. Usually they are over in about 10 seconds, but this one kept up for well over a minute. [More like 2.5 min, in fact.]

Thankfully, it appears that the building and all its inhabitants are ok, although there was a kind of minor outbreak of mass hysteria as all the girls started crying. Someone has found a radio, and from what I can gather the epicentre was the same as two days ago - in the Pacific to the east of Miyagi Prefecture, i.e. the one to the east of Yamagata. Apparently there have been some sizeable tsunamis hitting the east coast.

I'm back in the present now; the rest, as they say, is history. I was stuck at school for a while - although I had no responsibilities, I guess they just wanted me to stay somewhere safe until the dust had settled. The teachers dispersed all over town to escort the kids home, and I sat tight until they came back, listening to the radio. It was mostly about the tsunamis - they kept repeating "Please move to higher ground as quickly as possible", and they were reporting that waves up to 10m high had been hitting the shore. I don't think any of us could really comprehend what a 10m wave meant, but we have all seen the pictures now.

By the time everyone got back it was getting dark, so we had a debriefing by torchlight, and drew up a rota to man the school over the weekend. I was impressed with how well organised the whole thing was; it was like a military operation or something. Around six I was able to go home, which meant driving through the snow with all the traffic lights out. Getting home, I busted out some candles, and took stock of the situation. It was a cold night, and my kerosene heater needs electricity to operate. Marie's husband came round and offered to let me stay with them, but I had heard that power was still on in Yonezawa, so I decided to head out that way.

Most of the ALT population of south Yamagata (i.e. a good fifteen of us) ended up converging on a family restauant, where we hung out for about four hours drinking unlimited refills, exchanging stories, and huddling around iPhones watching footage of the tsunami. At this stage, we still didn't really grasp the seriousness of the situation. There was a big party planned for saturday night at the other end of the prefecture, so we were sorting out carpooling arrangements to get there, not appreciating that petrol was soon to become a scarce commodity.

Myself and one other guy went to Alda's to stay over. We found that we couldn't sleep - we were all on edge, with the aftershocks still coming. We kept imagining that the room was shaking, and the sound of snow falling off the roof had us panicking. We took to some moderate boozing to calm our nerves, eventually getting to sleep around three, only to be woken by Alda's phone's warning when a big aftershock hit just after four. Someone realised the internet was back up around seven, so that was us awake, first Skyping family and then reading the news, for the first time understanding just how big a deal this was.

Having nothing better to do, Alda and I decided to go and stock up on food, just in case. Swinging by a konbini, we found that some things like bread and riceballs were all gone, but other foods were in plentiful supply. We then went to a supermarket half an hour before it was to open (weirdly, Japanese supermarkets are closed until 10am), where people were already starting to queue up. They ended up opening the doors about 10 minutes early, and I got to be part of some very polite yet urgent panic-buying. Alda and I split up and did quite well for ourselves, with me bagging the last loaf of bread in the place (which turned out to be pink, and strawberry milkshake flavoured). We slipped up on bottled water though - rookie error. After that we went to my favourite shop Yamaya, which was a masterstroke as they have lots of non-perishable stuff like pasta, beef jerky, and boil-in-the-bag vegan curries.

We got back, set up a full cooker of rice, and spent the day lazily watching movies with one eye on the news websites. A couple of other ALTs joined us in the afternoon, and as news of the Fukushima plant started to emerge, we got sufficiently worried to suspend our viewing of 10 things I hate about you and start stockpiling non-radioactive water. I got news that power had come back on in Nanyo around 4pm, so after the excellent dinner of spaghetti and meatballs that my Italian-American hostess had stereotypically cooked, I decided to head home, thus putting an extra 3km between me and the troubled reactor. Could make all the difference, I thought.

I spent all of yesterday being simultaneously bored and anxious; it was like my PhD all over again. I went out for a wander around town just to take stock of the situation, as I reported in the previous post.

As the news comes in, it seems that it's going to take quite a while for things to get fully back to normal, what with the electricity rationing and the like. I hope that my parents will be able to go ahead with their scheduled trip here in a month.

Update, monday evening:
Just after I posted the above, there was a scary moment as there was an explosion at reactor number 3 and a warning of a 5m tsunami heading for the east coast within minutes of each other. But it turned out that the core had not been breached and that the tsunami was composed entirely of bullshit, so we could all breathe again.

I'm starting to get the feeling that things are going to get worse before they get better. There's definitely no petrol to be had in Nanyo tonight, and I couldn't see much in the way of kerosene either. Some eateries remain open, but Sukiya and Kappa Sushi have both closed their doors, which is of course a crushing blow for me. The supermarkets are looking shorter stocked today than they were yesterday.

But it's nothing I can't handle. I dug out my bike and fixed the puncture it had developed over the winter, so I can get around town without burning any precious petrol. Thankfully it's been very mild the last couple of days so the roads are largely free of snow - I never though I'd be happy about snow melting. And on the food front, if things really get desperate I have a big enough bag of rice to keep me alive for weeks.


  1. So pleased to hear that you are safe Finlay, our thoughts and prayers are with you.

  2. Hi Finlay. Glad to hear you're okay. Can't imagine what it must be like - my thoughts are with you.

  3. Hi Finlay,

    I don't know if this might be useful or not (the site seems pretty rubbish), for people who want to take in people;

    Kappa Sushi and Sukiya closed, eh? At least you've got that strawberry bread.

    Do you remember the name of the ryokan we stayed in near Matsushima? We couldn't remember exactly where it was... Or where the 'fish dragon hall' was, although I'm sure that place didn't have a hope.

    It's so sad.

  4. It was the Minshoku Boyoso in Higashi-matsushima, and I reckon the fish dragon hall was in the vicinity of Utatsu, Miyagi. I think both places would have been hit pretty badly.

    Today was a scary day. I'll probably post about it tomorrow.

  5. Come home!! I can't take the stress of worrying about you and this damn nuclear reactor!


  6. i have a niece in teaching in utatsu, we haven't heard from her, how bad was that town hit, and did most people in that town get out?? thanks for any information you can get me thank you Terri Oi

  7. Terri - I'm sorry, I don't know any more than you do. I really hope you get some good news soon.