Friday, March 18, 2011

The Great East Japan Earthquake and the week after................

The idea behind this article is not to recount problems faced by us but to emphasise on the current situation in Japan, the people's behaviour and the lessons that we have learnt in the last one week.
When the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck in the Tohoku region of Japan and almost devastated the prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi, Aomori and Iwate. This earthquake has reportedly shifted the earth by 10 cms from its axis while Japan's main Honshu island has moved by 2.4 meters from its place. This explains the intensity of the earthquake. The media has covered the damages done in this part of the country extensively. The videos and pictures are enough proof of the extent of devastation and as such I am not writing much about it. 
I was at home with my parents who had come from India to visit us. My daughter was in the school bus on the way back home from kindergarten while my husband was at work. We felt slight tremors but ignored it. We had experienced many minor earthquakes in Japan during the past year and thought this was another of those harmless earthquakes. Just then I happened to receive an area mail alert about the earthquake on my NTT Docomo Cellphone. It was common to receive such messages as part of the Earthquake Early warning system during all earthquakes above a certain magnitude.  My husband called up that instant to inform us to go out of the home as the tremors began and they experienced the first impact in his workplace. We ran outdoors but were unable to even stand straight. A few neighbours who were home also came outdoors and kept saying “Kowai ne” and “Jisshin”. “Kowai” means scary in Japanese while as strange as it may sound, the word “Jisshin” means Earthquake as well as confidence!  It took a long time for the tremors to stop. Everything from the electricity poles to trees shook but nothing fell. Parked cars also shook. Houses were swaying too but hats off to the Japanese earthquake resistant construction techniques, none of the houses in our locality fell or crumbled. Also in most videos seen on TV, it is evident that very few structures had fallen or collapsed due to the earthquake. The after shocks began almost immediately and in quick succession. Some of the aftershocks were full fledged earthquakes and measured above 6.0 magnitude. The aftershocks continue to rock various parts of Japan even a week later. We had sleepless nights right from the day the earthquake struck till we arrived in Mumbai. My daughter said that she wasn’t scared when the bus shook. The bus was stopped near an open ground when the tremors began and moved further only when the tremors had completely stopped. She said that their teacher told them to be calm and also told them to hold on to their seats. I am not sure how the teachers managed to stay calm, at the same time taking care that the children were safe and kept their calm. They did a great job because perhaps my daughter was the only one in our family who remained calm in the week that followed. My husband said that at his workplace, the entire building swayed and computers and other things fell off desks and shelves. Flooring was ruined in the buildings while a new building which was under construction was badly damaged. The real extent of the damage remains to be ascertained as of now.
The Tsunami which followed the earthquake caused more widespread destruction than the earthquake itself. The rubble and debris resulting from the earthquake was washed out into the sea or into the interiors. We still cannot forget the images we saw of Ships lying on home roofs, cars lying on building tops or people’s houses being washed away.  
Lightweight houses built to withstand earthquakes proved to be fatal as the 7 metre high waves washed them out into the sea. In Sanrikucho, Ofunato the tsunami waves are reported to have been 23 m high. Thousands of people have been reported missing and whole cities and towns have been vanquished. Lots of unfortunate people’s entire lives savings were washed out in no time. Lots of families were separated or displaced. Nature was showing its worst fury. Our house was about 10 kms away from the coast and on an elevation. As such, the tsunami waves did not reach our place. But the coastal areas of Yotsukura and Onahama port in Iwaki were badly affected. I have been unsuccessfully searching on the internet for information on what happened to the Iwaki La La Mew and Aquamarine Fukushima during the Tsunami.  The Tsunami caused much more damage to most of Tohoku’s Pacific Coast than the earthquake.
But this wasn’t the end of the ordeal for Japan. A newer and perhaps more deadlier problem arose in the form of the Nuclear crisis. The Earthquake and Tsunami waves led to the Nuclear reactors malfunctioning. Media has covered this event extensively so I will not go into the details.
Our home in Iwaki is about 50 kms from the Fukushima Nuclear plant. When the radiation threat was detected, the Govt had issued an advisory for people within 10 kms radius of the plant to evacuate. This was gradually increased to 20 kms and people within 30 kms radius were asked to stay indoors if they could not evacuate. The immediate threat is of the nuclear radiation which is likely to affect residents of this area and also likely to spread to other areas of Japan. It is sad that the same country has to experience yet another nuclear threat 66 years after the World War II. The recovery of Japan from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing has been a true example of the determination of the Japanese people. Hiroshima was not only rebuilt but it is one of Japan’s most modern cities. The resurrection was swift and while most other nations would have continued to enjoy sympathy, Japan came out of this strongly. This is a lesson that most other nations need to learn from the Japanese people. I am confident that Japan will rise from the current crisis within no time with their kind of determination and attitude.
The triple disaster disrupted normal life beyond imagination. The first effect was Phone lines stopped working and internet connection was down. Water supply stopped from the next day. Department stores and Convenience stores ran out of supplies and had to be shut down early the next morning. But hats off to the Japanese people for maintaining an amazing discipline and calm even in this crisis situation. In other nations, usually shortage of food and basic essentials leads to a looting and plundering situation. In Japan, there were no reports on any such instances. We did not even witness any such incident ourselves.  This shows that Japan as a country has raised its level much higher than all of this. Even in the queue for water collection, there was a sense of discipline as no one objected to other people filling up lot of containers with water while the people standing behind had only one or two containers.  All this at a time when the people in the queue behind were not sure that the water would last till their turn came. Since they had never needed to store water, people did not even have adequate containers and were collecting water in plastic bags.
 Even in such times people were helping others. Even in the videos showing the conditions in the evacuation centres, we could see people realized the need of other people and restricted their food requirements to a bare minimum. This is something the world needs to learn from the Japanese people.
 It was the first time for us to see a different side of Japan. It was the first time to see people queuing up for water near public places. It was the first time to see people queuing up outside stores in the hope that they would reopen. 
It was the first time to see a fuel shortage – Petrol bunks were closed and there were long line of cars waiting in the hope that the petrol bunks will reopen soon. 
Long queues for kerosene were a common sight
Expressways were closed and people moving out to Tokyo area or other prefectures had to use the Highway 6. Highway 6 was congested and we even heard rumours that it took almost 24-30 hours to reach Tokyo from Iwaki (a distance of approx 200 kms which normally takes approx 5 hrs driving time on Highway 6 and 3 hours on Joban expressway). I have lived in other countries before but the Japanese people have come across as the most humble and straightforward. Most people will agree with me when I say that the Japanese people are disciplined, polite, calm, brave and selfless. But to be able to control our emotions and fears and respect other peoples’ needs in trying times is very difficult. The patience and understanding that the Japanese people have demonstrated shows why the country has achieved so much. Shortage of food, fuel, electricity, water and fear of further problems have failed to change the people's attitude. Relief and restoration work started almost immediately and it was surprising to see that the badly damaged roads (at places the roads had been displaced by a feet or so) had been repaired/fixed quickly to help rescue and relief operations and evacuations. My family and I will always have the highest respect for Japan and its people. We consider ourselves lucky to have learnt most valuable lessons in life from the Japanese people in the current crisis.
We got to experience the best of Japanese care, concern, support and hospitality in the week following the earthquake. My husband’s company and his colleagues and friends took utmost care of our family. At times they have given priority to our wellbeing and safety even before they arranged basic necessities for themselves. Since English broadcasts are not continuous on the local TV, they even kept us informed of the latest advisories. A few friends had planned to take us along with their families to Tokyo area knowing well that we had no relatives in Japan. My husband’s company’s President himself arrived at our doorstep with water and food items and assured us about their concern for our wellbeing and safety. Even people having limited fuel in their cars came to our home first to check if we had enough food and water to last till we evacuated. One friend whose brother had gone missing during the Tsunami and parents were in an evacuation centre, came to our home to check about our safety because she was unable to call us. As the Nuclear crisis worsened, my husband’s company arranged for our immediate evacuation from the city of Iwaki to Tokyo and for further movement to India. Flight tickets were almost impossible to get but the company managed to find tickets for us. The company arranged transportation and interim accommodation till we moved to India. Since fuel was in short supply and no taxi service was operating, we were driven down to Tokyo by a director of the company who stayed with us till the time we boarded the flight from Narita. We feel guilty to have been a major concern for our friends and company in Japan in these times. Our return to India was essential in order to relieve them from worrying about us. Many of our acquaintances in Iwaki and vicinity had not been able to evacuate due to fuel shortage or other reasons like old relatives who could not be moved. A week later the situation is slowly improving but there is still a long way to go. My friends write to me that fuel and food shortage is still a concern in the region. Radiation levels were high but are slowly falling with the latest developments at the Fukushima Nuclear plant.  The personnel at the plant who have been working day and night to resolve the crisis are the real heroes. Their selfless service in this crisis situation cannot be forgotten.  
On our way to India, we stayed in Tokyo for 3 days. Contrary to media reports and rumours circulating at the time, people in Tokyo were living a normal life and there was no panic whatsoever. Buses to the Tokyo immigration bureau were crowded and we saw many foreigners queuing up for Airport buses or buses to the Immigration bureau. Narita airport was crowded beyond imagination and we saw many people waiting for tickets or for their flights days later. 
We reached my hometown Mumbai on 17th March 2011. Though we have returned to India, our heart and mind is still in Japan and we pray for the country and its people to overcome this situation and recover at the earliest. And we hope to be able to return to this wonderful country at the earliest. 

No comments:

Post a Comment