Sunday, March 11, 2018

March 11, 2011

I get asked about this time quite often once people find out I was living in Japan in 2011, and my old blog is defunct now, so here, for posterity, is my account of March 11th and the days following it. For those unfamiliar with the context, seven years ago I was living in Tsuruoka, Yamagata, a mere 100km away from the epicenter of the earthquake. Quite fortunately, we were on the opposite coast, and thus the tsunami that devastated so much of our dear Tohoku did not touch us. What follows is the account that I wrote in the week following the quake, it remains unedited; I haven't even gone back through it to fix typos. You get exactly what my stress addled brain was able to produce six days after the quake.


Words from JapanOriginally Posted on March 17, 2011 at 12:24 AM

Well, I won't lie, I'm slightly embarassed that I haven't posted since October. SOOOOO much has happened since then. I finished my most recent novel, I did the first round of edits, I sent it off to my first readers, I got it back from some of them, I'll soon be doing the second round of edits and sending it off to the editor who's interested in reading it. I also have driven to Kyushu and back, learned how to snowboard, signed up for a triathlon in June, started training for said triathlon, I've fallen even more madly in love with my boyfriend (didn't think that was possible), I've started teaching new classes at work and oh, yeah, I'm one of millions of people dealing with the after effects of the worst earthquake and tsunami Japan has ever experienced.

But, I imagine, unfortunately, due to the morbidity and curiosity of human nature, the thing you're all most interested in hearing about is that last bit. Which is fine, really, because that's what I'm here to talk about.

I've been inundated with loving e-mails from family and friends these days, including people I haven't heard from in ages who are checking in for the first time in months or years just to make sure I'm ok. It's nice. But, I've also been getting e-mails from the same concerned and loving people telling me to get the hell out of Japan. While I appreciate and understand where those sentiments come from, it's not at all helpful.

As the best way to allay fears is to provide information I'm restarting this blog to keep people informed and hopefully keep the fear down. Not to say that things aren't scary, but panic is never helpful and we'd like to keep it at a minimum.

Because it's a story that many people haven't heard, I'll start at the beginning.

Friday March 11th: On Fridays I teach kids for 3 hours straight and then head off to teach adults immediately afterwards so they're usually rather hectic. I was racing to finish planning for my adult and kids classes and print off worksheets before I left for class (because of course I put it off til the last second) and then hurrying out the door. As I bent down to pick up my bag, my phone went off and I picked it up to see what it was. Earthquake early warning. Shit. Right. Ok.

We'd had a 7.2 earthquake a few days before hand a few prefectures away and had gotten a solid sway from that, so earthquakes were on the brain, and I had recently reviewed the list of safety procedures just in case. So, keeping my cool I put down my bags and moved to the bathroom to turn off the gas for our hot water heater. Even as I put down my bag the apartment began to sway. I then moved to the kitchen and turned off the gas there. Then I headed to the sliding door and opened it wide. (If you don't know, we turn the gas off to help reduce the possibility of fires in a big quake and open doors in order to prevent being trapped should the quake twist the frames.)

With that done I noted that the apartment was not only still swaying but was swaying more vigorously. Not knowing how big this would get I decided to sit under my desk. I hate to admit it but part of me was thinking "crap this is going to make me late for class" I must be turning Japanese.

The swaying continued for minutes. The reports from Miyagi said that it lasted over 5 minutes (that's at the location closest to the epicenter) it seemed to go that long here as well. But to be perfectly frank, it wasn't that scary. The building swayed, we're on the 3rd floor of a very well made 4 story apartment building, so it swayed and clacked feeling like something between a boat on a rolling ocean and a train that's rocking on it's rails and that's about it. It was a lot of motion, but in our apartment nothing even fell over. As the swaying began to slow considerably I got up to poke my head out the door and see what the rest of the neighborhood was up to. Some old men who were clearing snow down on the street were looking suspiciously at the power lines in front of them and one of them was gesturing to the other. Though I couldn't hear him, he was clearly saying something along the lines of "Didja feel that one, Harry? That was a biggee eh?" The other man nodded, still staring at the power lines. I followed his gaze and noticed that they'd started swaying again. Our first aftershock. I waited out the aftershock inside. (Again, for those who don't know, while there is actual shaking going on, you're not supposed to run out of a building -unless it's already coming down- because you're more likely to get killed by a falling piece of facade than anything that might hit you inside.) Once that was over I was late for work but headed off anyway (after clearing the foot of fresh fallen snow off of my car). This is Japan after all and unless there's damage from an earthquake people expect you to keep on keeping on. No damage at our place, ergo I figured I was expected at work.

I was right. One of my students and his mom (these are my 6 year olds) arrived at the same time that I did. We exchanged our views of the quake and I learned a new word through context. Yureru: to shake. I went in and the staff at the place I work asked me if I was ok and if *immediate confirmation of my new vocab* things shook a lot at my place. I replied that they had indeed, as I am on the 3rd floor, but that there was no damage. They nodded. I picked up my materials and went into my classroom. All my students (remember they're six year olds) were hiding under the desks. When I came in they all shouted in unison "Sensei, Sensei! Jishindayo!" (Teacher, Teacher, There's an earthquake.) Yeah, I noticed.

So then I kept three 6 year olds entertained with English games while occasionally letting them dive under the desks when an aftershock hit. And plenty of aftershocks hit. I pretty much felt like we didn't stop swaying from 2:46pm when the quake hit until... well I still feel like I'm swaying now. But now it's mostly in my head. Up until Sunday afternoon or so, it really wasn't. The way to check this is to look at something that's hanging but is hefty enough not to be moved by a breeze. There's a large hanging calendar in the classroom I was teaching in, I kept on eye on it. About 9 times out of 10 it wasn't in my imagination and I checked that calendar about 50 times while I was in that room.

After my first kids class I walked out to the lobby where they had the news running on the big screen. I started to make some coppies for my next class and as I did so a bunch of the staff started exclaiming loudly in front of the TV. I rushed over to see what was going on and was horrified to see live coverage of one the Tsunami wiping out a town on the coast. None of us could talk, we just stood there covering our mouths and staring at the devastation as a wall of water picked up cars, houses, boats and everything else in its path and dragged them along. There aren't words... I'm sure you've all seen the footage at this point. But... imagine, if you can, that you're not seeing footage of a place that's thousands of miles away from you filled with people you've never met. Imagine instead that you're watching it, as it's happening, and looking at a place that you've been to before, a place that is almost identical to the place you live and a place that is filled with people who you might know, might have seen, might have talked to and who regardless of any of that are people just like you and only a hundred miles away.

We stood and watched helplessly as a part of our world was destroyed, and then I realized I was late for class, again. I had a hard time believing that parents were still letting their students come to my class, but they were. So I had to go teach. Thankfully I had prepared worksheets as I was in no condition to actually teach. I am quite convinced that my class on Friday was one of the worst classes I've ever taught. Thankfully, the kids were happy to be distracted with spelling sheets and word searches and didn't mind that I was constantly looking at the calendar on the wall.

For my third class I only had one student. He was 20 minutes late, so that gave me more time to watch the news. More shots of devastation from the tsunami, and as the situation progressed it really started to hit home that lots of people were going to be dead, possibly people I knew. I kept trying to send Corey a text message from my phone to tell him I was ok and ask him how he was but cell phones were down as the networks were overwhelmed. My lone 10 year old and I had an interesting conversation about the disaster and then, because I have a sick sense of humor, we played alphabet Jenga (made all the more interesting by the fact that the aftershocks kept shaking the table) in my defense the kid thought this was hilarious. Then we played 20 questions. He beat me with "ghost".

After that I had to run off to my adult class (over 7km away and only 20 minutes after my kids classes finish) only to find out that they had canceled. I was relieved. I didn't think I could handle pretending things were ok in front of adults for an hour and a half.

I headed home and found Corey and Johnny waiting for me watching the news. We exchanged hugs and tales of where we were when the quake hit, then we settled down to watch the records of the devastation. We talked about our friends in Miyagi and pondered whether or not they were ok. We had no idea, and we had no way of finding out until the internet and phones came back online. Eventually, we headed off to find Mide (our other good friend who lives close by) as we couldn't get in touch via phone. We walked to her place but she was out, so we left a note at her place and headed to our local pizza place for dinner. My buddy who runs the restaurant was fine and it was good to confirm that people were ok, he didn't have friends or family in Miyagi. Daijobu. (Japanese for "fine.") Mide showed finally managed to get a call through to Johnny and we told her to meet us at the restaurant. She'd been out driving around looking for us since her calls hadn't been going through. More hugs, more story telling and we made dark jokes and tried to laugh it off.

Then we headed to the supermarket to stock up on snacks and breakfast foods. From there we went to Mide's to try her phone line to see if we could succeed in calling home to let people know that we were ok. No dice. After a few more attempts we gave up and went our separate ways to try to find some sleep.

Just before I went to bed it occurred to me that I might be able to get an internet connection on my kindle. I had noticed that people with iPhones seemed to be getting through to people, and I knew that my kindle had the same connection that an iPhone does so I thought it might work. It did. I was able to post on facebook and send a quick e-mail to my family letting them know we were ok. Heart attacks, averted. For the time being anyway.

Saturday March 12th: We were awoken at 4am by a large aftershock. For most of us this was a rude awakening from dreams already laden with earthquakes. We then returned to an uneasy sleep constantly concerned that we'd have to get up for a full sized quake and make tracks. Thankfully, it never happened. We got up at 8am on Saturday to try to get online and get in touch with folks back home. Of course we also turned on the news. The power plants in Fukushima had been on the news the day before also, but we were so concerned with the quake and the tsunami and the thought of losing our friends and a city we loved that we didn't think too much of it.

On Saturday our perspective on that changed. The tragedy was still in the devastation faced by the residents all over the east coast of Tohoku, but the nuclear plant was becoming a growing concern.

Corey is the Block Leader for the JET program in Shonai. That means it's his responsibility to talk to people when they have problems and be a contact person for trouble at schools and in life in general. On Saturday it meant that he had to keep people calm. It was a big job and I did my best to help as I could. Foreigners who were unable to understand the Japanese news were only getting info from friends and family back home who were reading western news, or they were reading the western news themselves and were panicking unnecessarily. We did our best to keep that down. We invited people over, we drank, we played boggle, we made jokes, we talked about what super powers we wanted to have. It was a good time.

Sunday March 13th: We woke up to another 4am aftershock only this time our phones went off, but there was no noticable shaking. Then at 8am there was a shake that woke us up, but as it wasn't that big we just stayed in bed and went back to sleep. Around 10am we got up and made a big old western breakfast with potatoes and eggs. We fed our guests and tried to relax a bit. Then we got to business.

Sunday was stock up on food and gas day. We had heard that there would be shortages over the next week because supply chains would be slow to reestablish (most of our shipping used to come through Sendai, now that's not an option so a lot of rerouting needs to be done). So we went off to get in line for gas and then we hit up a supermarket outside of town that still had supplies. We only had to wait about 30 minutes for gas. (Considering that line ups lately have been over 2 hours long this was a nice break.) They were rationing so we only got 10 liters each (except Corey, he has a diesel van so he was allowed to fill up). But I had over half a tank anyway so 10 liters got me close to full. At the store we bought some more bread and some milk and eggs, some seaweed and some things we were out of and then we headed home.

From there we watched the news and then tried to take our minds off things. We had started stock piling clean drinking water just as a precaution the day before and we did some more of that. We mainly focused on keeping our guests calm and reassuring them.

Then a musician friend of ours showed up and he and Corey prepared for a small gig they had planned that night. A few hours later we went to watch them. Just before that I baked some bread. Life seemed almost normal. It was really nice to go listen to music and have a few drinks with friends for a while.

Some time during the day we heard news of possible rolling power outages scheduled for the coming week, so after the gig everyone decided to go their separate ways in order to do laundry and get prepared to possibly not have power. We had fewer aftershocks on Sunday than previous days so that was reassuring. Sunday night was a solid night of sleep.

Monday March 14th: We had just gotten up and were rejoicing at a our tremorless rest when another aftershock shook the house a bit. This no longer phases us as long as it stops within a minute or so.

On Monday I was getting a lot of worried email from home and we had just spent our weekend keeping others calm, and then Corey sent me a message from school asking me if I could prepare our evacuation bags just in case. Apparently this was where my stress level burst and I told the world to fuck off and I went to the gym. It was nice. I swam and ran and it was great stress relief. Yay, training! Then Johnny and I had bentos and made bad disaster jokes, then we headed back to the apartment and watched a silly TV show that made us laugh and relax a bit. Corey came home bearing alcohol and we made a party of it. My Monday class was canceled so I didn't have to go in to work. Good times.

We spent the evening hanging out and playing guitar and making each other laugh. It was relaxing and almost normal. Those of us still new to our instruments (ie. Johnny and I) were even calm enough to get frustrated with ourselves for not learning our part as fast as we wanted to. It was a good night.

Tuesday March 15th: Tuesday marked the arrival of our friend Jeremy who is a frenchman living in Sendai. He was fortunate enough to be in downtown Sendai at the time of the quake and he was fine. Likewise his house was not damaged. However, conditions are such in Sendai that he thought it would be best to leave. Waiting in line for two hours or more for food and water is only fun for so long. So we have taken him in.

Tuesday was also the day of taping up the windows and scrubbing out the tub so that we could fill it with water. As the threat from the Fukushima plant increased we had to keep all of our options open, including the eventuality of being stuck inside for a long time. Ergo we needed lots of water and wanted to keep out as much outside air as possible. This was all just precautionary, and even now people in our area are not being instructed to do this officially, but we've decided it's a reasonable precaution.

I still had to teach so I went off to hang with my adults and we mostly talked about the disaster for both classes. Still, my students were lively and seemed generally chipper though many of them are worried and pretty much everyone knows someone who is now homeless in Sendai or has been affected directly by the disaster. There was a lot of story swapping.

Tuesday night we celebrated Jeremy's arrival and safety by a drinking a bottle of champagne that he had given us back in January but which we had not yet consumed. We then celebrated further by watchin Zoolander. A completely ridiculous movie that was excellent for keeping our minds off things. All the while Jeremy had to keep running off to his computer because he is apparently France's primary correspondent on the ground here in Japan. Hilarious. Some of us have even been "interviewed" on French TV regardless of whether or not we speak French. Too funny.

Wednesday March 16th: Wednesday was a day of more preparations. We finished taping the windows and we had a meeting with some other local foreigners who are trying to organize relief efforts for Miyagi and other affected areas. Then I had to go teach in Sakata (a 40 minute drive to the north). I have 5 students in a business class there and they weren't so keen on talking about the disaster. Everyone is pretty worried about the Fukushima plants so after talking about it for a bit and making sure everyone was ok and so were their families and friends, I went for a change of subject. Prepared for the eventuality I had brought boggle. I had only meant to use it to start class, but after three rounds one of them asked me "can we do this for the rest of class?" I said, "sure." They had a blast.

Then I came home and made pizza with Jeremy as sou-chef while Corey went to collect some of our friends from Tendo who are flying out of our local airport on Friday. They had some road troubles on the way home (highway closed due to avalanche warning) so they took some extra time getting back, but all was well. Last night we sat around and played multilingual boggle, including rounds in French and Japanese. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of made up vocabulary. "What do you mean daol isn't a word in French? It sounded like one in my head!"

Thursday March 17th: Brings us to today. I have actually spent most of today writing this post so I will leave you here now. Things are ok today, we're keeping a close eye on the news and getting ready to accept more evacuees from Miyagi.

So there you go! I'm off to hit the gym and then go to work. Things here are fine for the moment. I will keep you posted as things progress. But that's the story up til now. I hope you are all doing well.

PS. If you are interested in helping out here in Japan please donate to the Japanese branch of the redcross!