My Life in Fukushima 2

Part 2: Tohoku Earthquake, 2011

Part 1 here

Like I said in the previous installment, at this point the disaster did not seem very serious, since there was no visible damage anywhere around our apartment. Keiko could not get through to anyone on her cell phone (cell service was completely jammed by that point), but we assumed everyone would be fine. Her hometown has never been prone to earthquakes, and they had pinpointed the epicenter already. Since Iwaki was much closer to it than any of her family we were not at all worried. There were reports of tsunami on the news by this point, with some as high as 10 meters (32.8 feet for those readers in backwards places), but this really did not sink in. So once we had finished cleaning up, we decided to continue with our day as planned.

The original agenda for our day was pretty simple: we were going to drive downtown and return some library books before going to kaiten (conveyor belt delivered) sushi for an early dinner. Off we went!

As we drove to Taira (downtown Iwaki) we were looking around for signs of things being amiss, but did not see any. The first sign of any damage was when we crossed an overpass over the train tracks: there was a good 20 cm (7.8 inches) “step” in the road where the road had settled and the bridge’s concrete abutment had not. We later found this was extremely common all over. We eased on over and headed into Taira.

In downtown Taira there were more signs that a major disaster had occurred. Sidewalks were buckled, forcing bricks and slabs up into jumbles, and there was broken glass all over from shattered windows (a major hazard in earthquakes is falling glass from smashed windows in tall buildings; the pressure of the buildings swaying and shifting will often blow the windows out).

Still in a happy fog, we found a parking space and walked to the library with our arms full of books, past some boutique ladies wrapped in blankets, sitting on the curb in front of the glass explosion their shop had become. The library was closed. That’s too bad, let’s try the sushi!

When we pulled into the sushi place we found some of the workers hanging around the back, looking depressed and worried about whatever state the kitchen was in. Keiko asked if they were open, and the dumbfounded look they gave us with their negative answer started penetrating the fog. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “this could be serious.” Perhaps you need to have lived in Japan to get this, but disruption of customer service is a sure sign of major catastrophe.

We got back in the car and slowly started driving home. On the way, we passed a convenience store, where a long line of people clutching drinks stretched right out the door. This penetrated further.

I realized things might be completely fucked. I’ve consumed enough doomsday scenarios to have a good sense of how things are expected to progress in one. Without deliveries, supermarkets have enough food for about 24 hours of normal operation. Hoards of people panic buying is not normal operation.

Keeping my voice calm, I asked Keiko how much food we had in the house. Not much at all, she answered, thus our plan to eat out. Okay, lets go to the supermarket right now.

We got to the supermarket by about five pm and I was immensely relieved to see it was no busier than usual. Of course we had no cooking gas, so we loaded up on instant food like cup ramen and bagged curry. We were even able to score a whole deli pizza. As we shopped, the store really started filling up. But there was no sense of urgency in anyone; people were wandering around in a mild daze, no doubt in a fog of their own. It actually seemed that many people were more cheerful than usual, like this had been an exciting break from routine. By the time we cleared the checkout, the supermarket was getting packed. We weaved our way through the traffic jam the parking lot had become and snuck back home with our booty.

Once home, Keiko, popped around to the neighbors to let them know about the propane situation, leaving notes when she couldn’t talk to them in person. I quickly discovered that the water had been shut off while we were out.

By this point the shock was gone and the continuous earthquake aftershocks, some of them pretty big earthquakes in their own right, were really getting to me. Every little tremor brought me right back to the worst moments of the big one: maybe this is the start of the one that brings everything down.

We sat down to have whatever dinner we could cobble together with an electric kettle and toaster oven and watched the first of the tsunami footage. Some of it was from little seaside towns that I drove through every week to get to company lessons. Buildings disintegrating into the surge with people visible on the roofs; watching people die knowing it was only a matter of dumb luck in timing that I wasn’t one of them. It was all I could do not to throw up.

I didn’t know it yet, but my mother had a rather terrible experience with exactly those thoughts. The day of the earthquake, she was on her way to visit her sister in Victoria. She woke up early and did not check the news or internet before heading to the airport, so she missed everything about it. It was only when she was sitting down in her seat on the airplane that she saw the news on the airplane televisions. They were showing that same tsunami footage, with banners saying it was basically where I lived. She thought I was dead. An hysterical meltdown followed and she had to be helped off the airplane. Thankfully, once off the plane, she was able to call my step-father and get the news that we were fine. With that settled, she decided to suck it up and go and visit my aunt anyway, so she re-boarded the plane and did just that. Old-school farm tough for the win there.

ENDNOTES: Next time: fun and excitement with nuclear meltdowns.

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