Filed under: Family, Japan, Work | Tags: Earthquake, meltdown, reactor, tsunami
All in all this has been a pretty shitty weekend. As most of the world is now aware, the largest Earthquake in Japanese history struck off the East Coast on Friday. At its epicenter the quake had a measured magnitude of 9.0 and was then followed by hundreds of aftershocks. According to the USGS, more than two dozen of those aftershocks were of magnitude 6 or greater — same size as the quake that rocked Christchurch last month. Quake triggered tsunami have shredded thousands of lives and televised scenes of murderous black froth sweeping away burning ruins will long remain in Japanese collective memory.
At the time of this writing, the Japanese government is estimating that there have been more than 10,000 deaths and many more injured. Adding further insult, two of the reactors at the notorious Fukushima nuclear power plant seem to be in the throes of serious cooling problems. Though the word “meltdown” has been bandied about it seems likely that damping and containment are both still being maintained. There is evidence (cesium and radioactive iodine in steam from the plant) that there has been some sort of core damage in at least one of the reactors but it is also near certain that damping rods that were automatically inserted during the first quake have the main reactions stopped.
Between the Earthquakes, fires, tsunami and nuclear reactor failures this has been and continues to be a particularly horrible experience for much of Japan.
My office is on the 16th floor of a 32 story tower in the Shibuya district of Tokyo — about 500 kilometers from the earthquake’s epicenter. The shake we felt was a “mere” Magnitude 5.0. In comparison to the experience of people in cities to the north, this was minor. My office shook with sufficient force that everyone including the quake-jaded Tokyoites donned emergency hard-hats (provided to all employees) and ducked under tables. The swaying of the building was both sickening and nerve-wracking but by design — better to flex and sway than to shatter. A tall bookshelf and the metal rack holding the office dartboard crashed to the floor. (This CNN video was taken near my office: http://cnn.com/video/?/video/world/2011/03/11/vo.japan.quake.cnn.cnn)
While busily advising people to put their damn hardhats on and get under tables, I also managed to dial my wife before the cell system went to hell. I didn’t know I had gotten through to her voice mail. The message I left was a shouted, “Table!” and then it was cut off. That may not have been the best final message I could have left and, when she finally heard it, she was more worried than reassured. I then began trying to call both Ray and Kokoro and failing to get through. If you imagine one cell or another pressed to my ear for the rest of this narrative that is an accurate view of how I spent the next several hours. Throughout the rest of the day and into the evening, I only got through to my mother-in-law who I asked to call Megumi and the kids. The voice networks were overwhelmed immediately.
As the shakes continued the facility managers announced that we should stay where we were. No, we should go outside, No stay where you are (edit: A friend who was there says he doesn’t remember the dithering — maybe that was just my internal dialog). After a moment or two of weighing the alternatives we evacuated calmly and quickly, taking coats, laptop computers and the occasional emergency survival kit. The building shook a bit as we descended the stairs but was mostly still by the time we got to the evacuation area downstairs. A few more hefty aftershocks hit as we waited for word on what to do next. We were advised to stay well back from the tower to avoid falling glass (none fell) though most of my team had already backed off about 50 meters. Since the sway of the building was clear to observers on the ground it didn’t take much urging.
Traffic snarled pretty much immediately and crowds on the street slowly grew thicker as workers abandoned their offices. I told my team that they should go home and soon after that upper management made the same call for everyone. At that point (perhaps 3:30?) most of us were expecting the trains to be running in a short time. They didn’t. After all of my guys left, I reported their status and headed for home myself. I went to Shibuya station to try the train first. Security had locked the entrance to the Hanzomon line, my normal subway. On the other side of the station I could see the elevated tracks of the Yamanote line and it was stopped too. As chance would have it, I bumped into a crowd of people from my office debating what to do next. I joined their discussion as they were deciding that it was time to walk. The group split in two going different directions and I followed the first group heading towards Shinjuku.
I had never walked through street level crowds as thick as that. Japanese subway stations are famously crowded and Meijidori, a large road cutting through Shibuya and Shinjuku, was similarly thick. Vehicle traffic was almost completely stalled and people crowded the streets like a sort of shell-shocked version of Carnival. Almost everyone had cell phones pressed to their heads. This modern talisman did little to ward off evil and certainly didn’t help my fear. I was one of the millions trying desperately to reach family and failing. My problem was that I wasn’t certain about the timing but I was knew that it was near time for my kids to come home from school and I was afraid that they were on the subway when the quake hit. I made a conscious effort to stop imagining them trapped underground. I kept walking.
The others from my office were smokers and needed to stop with frustrating regularity. Complaints of their speed aside, I used those pauses in our march to contact my boss by Skype and send emails to my parents and wife. At about 5:00, I got a very oddly worded email from Ray’s Facebook account but it indicated that he and Kokoro were safe and on their way home with a teacher from his school. It turns out that the teacher had logged into Ray’s account from an iPhone and sent the message for them. I didn’t hear any of this until later but the kids evacuated the school immediately and parents soon descended on the place taking their children home. The remaining kids were left outside as they were (light coats for both and slipper-like sneakers for Kokoro) when the quake hit. Mr. Thomas, the teacher who took them under his wing lives in our neighborhood and he said that he would see the two of them and another little boy home. They left the school on foot at about 4:00. They stopped at a convenience store and fueled up on meat filled buns and then tried to take a bus that was going in almost the right direction. The bus didn’t get far in the traffic and they abandoned it after a very brief ride. From that point, they started walking home.
Having gotten word that the kids were relatively safe I was tremendously relieved but not ready to celebrate. The people from my office decided they needed another break so I decided to press on without them. We split up near Shinjuku. Though I know that area better than others I am very happy to have had GPS guiding me on a “best route” to where I was certain of my way. On the road the only real damage I saw was a collapsed retaining wall holding up a cemetery. Headstones and memorials had spilled down into the street.
I am still not certain of my wife’s timeline but when she left her office her first reaction was to catch a taxi. That worked as poorly as the kids’ bus so she walked home, grabbed our car and charged to the kids rescue. She was soon caught in a traffic jam and stalled on the road near Iidabashi (normally about five minutes from home). By the time I got home it was about seven (only about two and a half hours walk) and the cell network was finally recovering a bit. I reached Megumi and let her know what the kids were doing. She decided to turn around and try again when we had a better idea where they were. I spent the rest of my time trying to reach Mr. Thomas via phone, email and Facebook. We finally got word that the kids were in Kudanshita (near the Budokan, about 8km from the start of their trek) and Megumi took off again. I packed up a bag full of coats, Megumi packed a bag full of hot soup and a thermos of hot drink. I tossed a handful of candies into her bag, showed her how to use Skype and the GPS and away she went. Around 10:30 that night she brought them home after dropping off their teacher and the other little boy.
Others in the family were not relieved so quickly. My sister-in-law’s kids were on a field trip to the zoo when the quake hit. Their mother was stuck on the far side of Tokyo so far from home that walking wasn’t a reasonable option. She spent the night at the office. Their father managed to walk home that night but the zoo was far enough way that going and getting them was not an option. The boys (4 and 5) spent the night at the zoo. It was not until 10:00 the next night that they got home. For them, it had been a wonderful adventure though their teachers were a little on the ragged side.
Our cell phone based earthquake warning system didn’t let out a peep during the big one but their mini klaxon sounded off and on all throughout the following night as aftershocks struck here and there. Today, Monday, small quakes continue. The government and power companies are arranging scheduled black-outs to conserve power and they have recommended staying off the trains unless there is a serious need. Since my sister-in-law’s family lives in a black-out zone in Chiba (water has also been a worry there) their children are staying with us and they will be moving in tonight. It will be crowded but having all of the local family nearby will be good for my nerves.
Tonight, I’ll break out a bottle of sake that was given to us by an old Aikido instructor friend and I will toast health and family.
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