Three Related Disasters (Part 1), by Joe Refugee From Tokyo

Sunday, Mar 20, 2011

Day One
Just another day for an American ex-pat in an office in a skyscraper in Tokyo, or so it seemed. There was a nice view in several directions, offering a chance to see a real panorama of the city. In just a few minutes, that view would include large fires and streets packed with cars and people walking. The reason, of course, is it was 11-3-11.  

The first inkling of trouble was a minor feeling of movement, and this lasted for perhaps a minute, and then things got worse. The shaking got to where it was time to not move, and then it was time to get under my desk. Finally, it was time to hold on to something to avoid being jerked around. This lasted for many minutes, far longer than any earthquake I had experienced in California or Japan.  

After things settled down a bit, we all got up and tried to figure out what had happened. Had we been at the epicenter of this? A co-worker said an initial reading was that it was 7.9 on the Richter scale. Bad, but not enough to expect the problems that were to come. Unfortunately, the numbers went up over the next hour or so, and the big shock was that television showed a tsunami wiping out a town after 30 minutes or so. About the same time, I noticed many big fires in the distance, and pointed them out to my co-workers.  

Right after the earthquake ended, the speakers in the building announced the earthquake and that the elevators were not in service. Phones were not working, but the power was. It was a tough choice, walk home for hours in Winter, along with millions, or wait and hope that the trains and subways might gradually return on a limited basis. As the epicenter was not that near Tokyo, I figured it was worth waiting a while to see what happened. But things got worse. This seems to have been a repeating theme throughout this. One problem seems to impact the next, overburdened system.  

For better or worse, I decided to wait for a few hours, and put up with the aftershocks. I also wanted the phones to come back so I could see how my wife was. The phones came back in a limited way after ten minutes or so, but not cell phones, which had troubles for many hours. But I could not dial out. Many co-workers or their neighbors had suffered some damage, but the real concern was closer to the epicenter, and along the coast. My wife had relatives impacted by both the tsunami and, later, the nuclear issue. The good news was her relative was evacuated from his factory before the water swept in. The bad news is that the economics of this tragedy are going to be practically at the level of fighting a war on your own soil, and this fellow is unlikely to have a job for quite some time.  

So the news got worse and worse, and many systems already went into a very limited mode. If you wanted something, it was probably a good idea to think about getting it then. Of course, it you got closer to the dramatic damage, it was too late, as most stores were damaged, and everyone was now working on dealing with issues of life and limb to care about keeping a store open that sells blankets for example. And it is a safe bet that a lot of folks were kicking themselves later about not having the supplies they needed. Not just for themselves, but for family and friends that had had their houses destroyed, and for those trapped en route on some trip.

My family did an inventory that night, and we discovered that our biggest flashlight was too old and no longer worked properly. It was probably time to re-read SurvivalBlog's guidance on preparedness at that point. The good news is that my workplace gave out a survival kit with water, a high-tech blanket, flashlight, and a few other things. We also had candles and a mini-flashlight. Not that the power went out yet. That was later, but, if the quake had been closer, it is reasonably likely that even downtown Tokyo would have been dark and cold. All things considered, the supplies of food and medicine were sufficient, but it was obviously time to buy more. I had been more concerned with an economic or currency disaster than what happened, but still slept better over the next few days knowing that we had months of supplies.  

That night, I felt a bit seasick, but not so bad that it was a real problem. But the bigger problem for most of us was shock. Those who had family or friends in the worst-hit areas had a tough time keeping their minds on further preparations, which might be another lesson in why it is good to prepare ahead of time. I do not think I was thinking clearly on 9/11, and not on 3/11, either. The good news is that disaster drills and preparation are common in Japan. This made many things go smoothly. I suspect an inadequate number of disaster drills are done by local governments or businesses in the US. As an example, a very strong hurricane hitting Miami is just a matter of time. Are they better prepared than the one a couple of decades ago?

In any case, the systems in Tokyo went smoothly. I do not know about closer to the disaster area. It seems that they went reasonably well, but the strength and speed of the tsunami, along with the lack of much time, really made the fatalities a lot worse than was expected. People go through towns saying that everyone should evacuate to higher ground after earthquakes, but those in poor physical condition may choose to ignore the warning, and perhaps some wanted to clean up some of the broken jars and such before evacuating. Unfortunately, they did not have a minute to spare.  

Turning on the television that night, it was mentioned that the nuclear plants at Fukushima had been hit hard. This was to become a topic for later. At the moment, fires had to be put out, and the injured taken to hospitals. Nuclear plants have many backups, and they would not be built near oceans if they could not handle tsunamis, right?   (To be continued.)


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