Monday, November 7, 2011

Remembering the Moment the Great Tohuku Earthquake Struck Japan

Mid-afternoon on March 11, I was out walking my dog, a 60-pound Siberian husky named Achilles. He heard the quake or sensed it before I did, because some minutes before he snapped and pulled hard on the leash, then moved in front of me and barked again. It is what he has been taught to do when he feels something or someone is threatening.

A few moments later there was a sound. I heard it once before, in Berkeley, Calif., in 1989, but this was amped up. As the horizon began to pitch, I slam-dived Achilles and myself to the road, a one lane blacktop beside a ricefield. I knew better than to look at the horizon, but I watched the road, which to this day looks like the greatest jigsaw puzzle ever invented. It twisted, heaved, bucked. I watched it to see if it would simply sunder and we would have to roll into the rice field. It did not (later that day I would see one road that had split). When it was over, we got up.

My wife arrived soon afterwards with her assistant, and our house, fortunately, had suffered only minor damage. We had lost all electricity and with the mobile phone network down, we were cut off. We rushed to pick up our children from their kindergarten but a relative had already taken them. The one proud moment of that day was hearing from my son’s teacher that, while the children had been scared and screaming, my son had remained calm and told them, “Listen to the teacher, stay together, do not be afraid.”

I was first asked to do this article when all of Japan, including the city I live in, was not only still recovering, but still on alert for radiation leaks from Fukushima. The very idea of doing a “good news” story, a story of something that went right on March 11, was so counterintuitive that I got arguments from other journalists about even pursuing the story. But the story is an important one.

These people -- and it is a cast of hundreds of thousands when we stop counting all involved -- managed a mass evacuation under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable without loss of life or injury. Of course they were immensely lucky. Luck and chance always play huge roles in disasters. Napoleon is said to have honored one of his generals by saying he was “brave, but more than that, he is lucky.” The same principle applies to the evacuation.

Richard Greenfield is a freelance writer based in Japan. His article "How a Shaken City Kept Steady Nerves" was published in the fall 2011 issue of InTransition.

Photographer's "traumatic train"

This photo by Chris Edwards of Leicestershire, U.K., dramatically illustrates the human side of the transportation crisis in Tokyo as a result of the March 2011 earthquake. The transportation crisis was the subject of “How a Shaken City Kept Steady Nerves,” which appeared in the fall 2011 issue of InTransition. Here’s how Edwards described the scene when he posted the photo to Flickr:

I was on board a train in Tokyo yesterday when the big earthquake struck, I was unbelievably scared, I still now don't understand why the train didn't derail completely.

We was evacuated from the train once the main earthquakes stopped and then after a couple of hours or so of walking we found refuge in a hotel basement, where I still remain, although I have a room now. A very wobbly one though, 9 floors up and we're still having quakes.

In a subsequent email correspondence, Edwards related that while, in the end, the city of Tokyo coped with the many challenges posed by the earthquake —including avoiding the loss of life or serious injuries when the transit system shut down —living through the experience left passengers very much “shaken”:

We were on a very traumatic train for 90 minutes with very little information offered. When we eventually got evacuated, the station we walked to was in turmoil. Nobody knew what to do or where to go and the transport authorities were offering no information other than handing out maps.

Whilst we were in that station more earthquakes hit and masonry was falling around us. The roads were gridlocked for many, many hours. Over the next few days the railways were shut down at random intervals with very little warning leaving massive queues for taxis and gridlocked roads again.

The place was in chaos.

That said, we were travelling at a high speed and the speed the train network shut down was very impressive.

Other photos by Edwards on Japan and other subjects can be seen at: