It’s the End of the World and I Feel Fine: Earthquake Update

Houses swallowed up by tsunami waves in Miyaji prefecture.
Photo: Kyodo News/Associated Press via The Big Picture

As I’m sure all of you know, Japan experienced a massive 8.9 earthquake yesterday at 2:46 pm. The largest quake to hit Japan and one of the largest in recorded history, it was centered off the northeast coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, about 231 miles away from Tokyo. I’m happy to report that I am safe and sound, although the last 24 hours have certainly left me shaken.

When the quake hit, I was studying with a friend at my home just east of Tokyo. As is typical with earthquakes, it took us several seconds to confirm that an earthquake was indeed happening and to decide on the best place in the house to stand. It’s easy to become blasé about earthquakes in Japan; it’s located in an extremely active seismic area and is the country that regularly records the most earthquakes in the world. But it became almost immediately apparent that this was no ordinary quake. Having been in Seattle for the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, I remember well the 45 seconds of intense swaying that constituted one of the largest earthquake’s in the history of Washington State. This was even worse, however: the shaking seemed to last for at least a couple of minutes, during which I could hear my house creaking around me, glasses rattling, tables and cabinets shifting. I have a number of hanging lights in my house that were swinging alarmingly from side-to-side, and a light fixture fell from the ceiling at one point. For a little while, it struck us that this might be the “big one”—that apocalyptic earthquake that seems ever so unlikely but that most people realize is a definitely possibility. It seemed certain that if the quake kept intensifying for much longer, the house would start to come down around our ears. But after a few excruciating minutes, the shaking began to subside, though it seemed to keep swaying more subtly for quite some time. When we were confident enough of our safety to move from our positions under the doorway, we immediately checked the Internet to discover that it was indeed a massive earthquake centered off of the coast of Sendai and that tsunami warnings had been issued for most of the Pacific coast of Japan, as well as a number of other countries. In my area, the public announcement system—generally used for routine reminders about not running over schoolchildren on their way home and marking the time with musical numbers—intermittently delivered updates, but though we are quite near the water, we are lucky enough to be sheltered a bit by Tokyo Bay. Considering the enormous shaking we had been dealt despite our distance from the epicenter, we knew it had to be bad further north. Other areas weren’t so lucky, hit by enormous waves, some more than 20 feet high, with little or no time to prepare:

An incoming tsunami wave sweeping away houses in Natori City in northeastern Japan.
Photo: Reuters via The Big Picture

We quickly learned that all of the trains had been stopped and that thousands of commuters were stranded in Tokyo. I had briefly considered going in to campus to work today—not doing so was probably one of the better decisions I’ve ever made. Many people ended up stranded in Tokyo, staying either in their offices or in shelters that were set up around the city; some intrepid souls tried to walk back to their homes despite the long distances.

Stranded commuters watching television news updates in Shinbashi Station.
Photo: Kyodo News via The Japan Times

For me, the most trying part was (is) the aftershocks, the like of which I could never have imagined. The whole of the island of Honshu became like a gigantic ship that just wouldn’t stop swaying, and I soon found myself feeling fairly motion stick just while simply sitting at my desk. Many of my friends around the Kanto area reported feeling similarly nauseous. According to the US Geological Survey, we had at least 44 aftershocks in the six hours immediately following the initial quake; over a dozen of those would have been large earthquakes in their own right. As of this writing, we’ve had over 140 aftershocks in the eastern part of Japan, as well as one strong quake in the western portion near Nagano. At some point, we found it difficult to tell whether the earth was moving again or whether it was still moving or whether we were just imagining it all. It was all just incredibly disorienting. Even now, the way my coffee is moving makes me suspect that the ground is still shifting beneath my feet. Ah yes, that was definitely another aftershock.

Things went back to normal pretty quickly in my neighborhood. We ventured outside a couple of hours after the initial quake and were surprised to find people going about their lives as normal—bicycling home, walking around… Some children were even playing basketball in the street. We went to our local supermarket to pick up some extra water and non-perishable food, and expecting to see the shelves ransacked, we were surprised to find them fully stocked and the store employees in a complete state of calm. It was actually sort of surreal–we almost felt silly for taking precautions for further disruptions, with everyone going about their lives so nonchalantly (although that certainly wasn’t going to stop us).

Workers inspecting a caved-in section of a road in Saitama, north of Tokyo.
Photo: Saitama Shimbun/Kyodo News/Associated Press via The Big Picture

Needless to say, we escaped relatively unscathed, as has most of the Tokyo area. Thankfully, Japan is a country that has long prepared for earthquakes, so its towering skyscrapers are largely up to code and a disaster plan has long been in place. A leadership team has been formed, and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces have already sprung into action in conjunction with the US military. But it will take a lot of planning and cooperation to recover from this disaster, as you can probably tell from most of the television footage of areas closer to the epicenter. The quake triggered an enormous tsunami, which washed over enormous swaths of coastal areas, claiming many victims. The official death toll is at around 500 at the moment, but with countless other people are missing, that number is sure to rise—thousands of houses were devastated in Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures and there are even some whole trains that have just gone missing. Things are on fire, power is out, people are worried about nuclear reactors, many are stranded around the country due to disruptions in the transportation system. Mobile phones were essentially useless during most of the aftermath, though many people managed to contact others via the Internet—Twitter in particular seems to have been a useful tool in connecting people and getting news out. Without a doubt, it will be days or weeks before we know the extent of the damage, and I personally dread hearing the details. It makes me feel incredible thankful and a bit guilty that I and everyone I know was able to make it through this unharmed—my thoughts and prayers go out to those less fortunate.

I don’t anticipate updating this blog regularly with news about the quake–instead, I’ll be updating my Twitter feed, so please feel free to follow me on Twitter for more news about the quake (and for reassurance that I’m still ok). I’m planning on leaving for China in a couple of days, but we’ll have to see how things develop. For now, you can rest assured that I’m staying put at home.

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