Saturday, March 19, 2011

My quake experience (cross-posted)

During the quake, people in Shinjuku leave their office buildings and stand in the street for fear of their buildings falling down with them still inside. (Click any picture for a larger version.)

Note: I wasn't going to write this, but I feel it's something that is worth putting out there. If I still wrote for my personal blogs, I'd put this there. As it is, I'm placing this here as a bookmark. I'm cross-posting this on both of my main blogs. My apologies to those for whom it is not of interest. I'll be back to normal posts as usual on Monday.

About 6 years ago, I had just finished work on a Saturday afternoon and walked to the local subway station. As I stood on the platform, I felt a strange and somewhat intense shuddering under my feet. I didn't recognize it at the time, but it was a pretty strong earthquake that would leave me stranded in Kudanshita for three hours as the metro was checked for quake-related problems. Up until March 11, 2011, that was the worst quake I'd experienced in Japan and, being underground and therefore less shaken up, I didn't even immediately recognize what it was.

Everyone knows by now that the quake didn't do excessive damage to Tokyo. In the face of the horrendous tsunami damage in northeastern Japan, even talking about how it was in the big city seems disrespectful as it would feel as if one is elevating trivial suffering by the act of bothering to mention it. That being said, the experience is no less terrifying as you live it for not having suffered horrific consequences. As it is happening, you do not know when or how it will end. You only know fear.

I've talked to a lot of Japanese folks who are Tokyo bred and born, and all of them have said that they've lived through a lot of quakes, but this was the first time they were actually afraid. Many of them felt that this was "the big one" that everyone loves to say has been "overdue" for quite some time. All of them were worried that the buildings they were in would come down around them. Most of them dived under their desks or got out of their office buildings and into the clear. The fact that the buildings didn't fall down is a testimonial to how prepared Tokyo was for a strong quake, not an indication that this wasn't a serious amount of shaking with the potential for great damage.

When the quake hit, I was at home on a day in which I had no scheduled freelance work. I was doing what I often do with long stretches of free time; I was getting in some serious cooking for the next several days when I'd be greatly more active. I'd made 8 chocolate muffins and put them aside for cooling before removing them from their tins and was waiting for a loaf of whole wheat bread to finish in the bread machine. I was also thinking about getting down to business on my blogs and replenishing my post buffers.

The quake is talked about as if it were just one big shake that scared the bejeezus out of us and then pieces were picked up and those in Tokyo wiped their brows and felt relieved, but it wasn't quite like that. It started as a pretty low level quake, the sort which doesn't tend to alarm those who are old hands at living in Tokyo. It continued on and built up more and more over what felt like as long as a minute. That is an incredibly long time when the room is shaking hard. When the intensity started to ramp up, I did what I always do when a quake starts to feel strong, I walked to the front door, opened it, and stood in the doorway. Door frames are strong architecturally, and mine is not near any potential falling glass. Being there half in and half out of the apartment also provides me with two options to quickly act upon. I can either duck in or run out into the street.

The neighbor/landlord's house had a huge and heavy Japanese lawn ornament out front which toppled and shattered during the quake.

Since I grew up in Pennsylvania, where there are no earthquakes, I tend to react a little faster than most of the Tokyo natives. I stood there in the doorway watching my neighbor and landlady fussing with her laundry on the second floor balcony of their house. As the quake continued to grow in intensity, she scurried back into the house. Unlike most people who experienced this quake, I wasn't attending as much to what was happening inside my home because I was looking outside for indications that it was growing more serious. There's a metal roof which is part of a walkway above us for the second floor of our two-story building and I listened to it rattle. I watched the tree in front of the neighbors house start to whip and sway along with the power cables strung near it. I wondered if the cables might snap from the force.

When you watch a quake on T.V., you don't realize that it's an all-encompassing sensory experience, not merely objects moving about. It's palpable as well as visual and auditory. I felt the force of it move through my body. In fact, I put my hand against the opposite side of the door frame as I leaned against one side so that I could feel the movement more than see it. The extent to which the shock waves caused by the energy being expended in a quake can be felt is a much better indication of how powerful it is than watching objects, which have varying centers of gravity and mass, move. Feeling the movement of the framework of my apartment made it crystal clear how powerful the quake was. I could also feel it through the solid cement floor of the genkan (sunken entryway for shoes in Japanese homes).

After the quake, I walked into my apartment and typed a message on FaceBook about there just having been a huge quake in Tokyo. My hands were shaking so much that I had problems typing the words. In retrospect, after sending the message, I typed something about how it was "huge" by my standards, but others may feel it wasn't such a big deal. I wondered if I was being a big baby and overreacting.

Soon after sending that message, a strong aftershock hit and I stood in the doorway again. It didn't feel much smaller than the first prolonged tremor, and it also lasted a very long time, at least when you measure time by how terrified you are as it passes. By now, I was more attentive to what was happening all around me. I watched my refrigerator shake hard in its place, and was glad that the heaviest object in my home was wedged in so tight that it wouldn't probably fall even if the force was strong enough to take down the whole building. I wondered if my tray of chocolate muffins was going to fall from where it was sitting. I watched the neighbors laundry and house, and the tree and cables again. I looked up at the sky, which was beautiful, clear and blue, and thought about how this gorgeous day was carrying on in such opposition to what I was experiencing.

After the first aftershock, I worried about my husband's disposition. He works in a medium-sized (6 story) building in the business district of Shinjuku. He is on the 4th floor. I didn't think anything would have happened during the first quake because I think most buildings can take  quake abuse in Tokyo, but I wondered if the extended nature of the tremors might not be something all buildings could withstand. I did feel that he was probably safer than me since taller buildings are built to deal with quakes better than shorter ones, but he is the most valuable person in the world to me and I couldn't help but worry.

After the second round of shaking, I went outside to see what my neighbors were doing. In part, I wondered if this was as scary and atypical to those well-experienced in quakes as it was to me. If odd things were going on with them, then it was as "bad" as I felt it was. The old couple next to our apartment building had moved a stool out in front of their home and were sitting in the alley. Down the street, I could see other people standing in the road. I heard sirens going off. At that point, it was hard to know how others had weathered the storm from looking around the immediate area. It turned out that most, but not all people in Tokyo were okay, though an old meeting hall collapsed on the heads of school kids and their families in Kudanshita (killing 5 people) and fires were starting and soon to rage in Adachi-ku because of ruptured gas lines. 

Not too long after the second aftershock, another strong and prolonged one came and I was back in the doorway again. This time when I looked up at the sky, I saw a huge dark cloud rolling in. With this repeated strong shaking, and that change in the sky, I had a thought which I discovered was shared with one of my students. As we both saw that change in the sky and endured repeated hard shakes, we both wondered if this was the apocalypse. The sense of foreboding at this point was hard to ignore. After the third round, I wondered when and if it was ever going to stop, and I was worried that if Japan was shaking to pieces that my husband and I would each die alone and how the thought was unbearable. I became genuinely afraid that he may be harmed, or that I might be and he would be left alone and devastated.

Around this time, I turned on the television and this was when I started to see real time coverage of the post-quake effects. A live video feed showed  the tidal wave wash over parts of Iwate and carry away cars, sweep boats inland, and flood houses. Seeing this happen, all I could think was that I hoped that those people had time to get out, but I was pretty sure that there was no way that everyone would have managed. Watching footage of horrors as they have occurred in the past is different than watching it happen live. The sense of powerlessness in the face of nature doing what it does is very profound, and the intensity with which you empathize with the people is greatly ramped up. Those people aren't dead. Their fate is not a matter of history. They are about to die or dying and you're incapable of doing anything but watch it happen. Honestly, it felt almost like the most obscene form of rubber-necking. I don't think humans with their consciousness, intellect and particular nervous systems were meant to watch such things from a distance so great that they cannot do a single thing to help.

Long lines formed in front of pay phones just after the quake since cell service was unreliable.

From this point on, my main thoughts were with my husband, and I was sincerely concerned that the shaking was going to just keep happening. Fortunately, he was able to leave his office and connect with his iPad to the internet at the McDonald's next to his office and e-mailed me that he was okay, and thanks to my posts on FaceBook, he knew I was okay as well. Soon after that, he managed to call me from a pay phone. One of the things that I hope is taken away from this experience is that NTT (Nippon Telephone and Telegraph) should stop taking down all of the land line and pay phones. After the quake, the cell phones were all jammed up, but the land lines worked. Long lines formed in front of the scant number of remaining phones as people tried to reach loved ones to see if they had come through unscathed. It is somewhat ironic to me that my husband and I, who have been repeatedly warned that we "need" a cell phone in case of an emergency, were able to communicate because we kept our land line rather than switched to a cell phone.

From this point on, things started to grow increasingly confused. My husband contacted me via Skype (again, on his iPad) to say he was leaving work and walking home from Shinjuku. As we were ironing out the details, I was shocked by the fact that the doorbell rang. I expected no one and couldn't imagine an errant newspaper salesman or Jehovah's Witness would show up at such a time. It turned out that it was my brother-in-law, who also lives and works in Tokyo. He just happened to ride his scooter to work that day and stopped by on the way home to check and see if his brother and I were okay. He also had left work because of the quake and said he felt bad abandoning his coworkers who had no way home, but he couldn't contact his wife and needed to get home to let her know he was okay. He showed me pictures of the chaos at his college which made it clear that I was luckier than most. In our apartment, only three vases fell down and a few boxes of crackers and other food fell from a kitchen shelf. Books and DVDs were dislodged and moved around, but didn't fall out. Being on the first floor has some benefits, and not being shaken so hard in a quake is one of them.

The foot traffic crowding the streets and headed in the opposite direction that I was going in made me feel like there was a mass exodus and I was going the wrong way.

I walked halfway to Shinjuku to meet up with my husband and did so against a tide going from the business and shopping districts toward the residential areas. Everyone was stranded and had to choose between staying in their offices until transportation resumed or finding an alternate way home. The buses were mobbed as the subways and trains were shut down. Lines for cabs were ridiculously long, but even if you could cram onto a bus or get a cab, the streets were blocked such that it'd take hours to get home. Most people could walk home in the time it would take a vehicle to reach.

A bus that was so crowded that only one more man could be crammed in at this particular stop.

The transportation issues have lasted for over a week, but were acute on the day of the quake. The subway didn't run at all until around 1:00 am, and the trains much later than that. It was very clear that, though relying on public transportation is great for the environment, there are serious issues when there is a natural disaster. Several of my acquaintances slept in their offices, a few had companies that got them a hotel room, and several walked home despite requiring 4 or 5 hours to do so. My husband and I have not moved from our aging apartment in part because it is only a 90-minute walk from his office. We had even talked before about what we would do if the day of "the big one" came. If we were out of communication, he would walk to me and I was to stay put knowing he was on his way. Since we could talk, I met him around halfway between our home and his work with great relief. The 40 or so minutes that I walked to meet him were the most oblivious time of my life. I just wanted to see him and the time flew as I walked down the street. Before I knew it, I'd walked by two subway stations and was nearing the third when we finally saw each other. It does pay to be relatively fit in Tokyo at times like this.

Since then, nothing has been "normal". No, we are not buried under tons of tsunami-induced rubble or digging our loved ones out of debris. For that, I am eternally grateful. I can't tell you how many times I've looked at pictures of quake devastation and thought of how lucky I am not to be in the shoes of one of those poor people. They are cold, hungry, and, in many cases, have lost everything. Some of them find loved ones and hold the hands of their still buried bodies as cameras coldly record what should be their private despair and grief and hold it out for the world to witness. In the face of their misery and devastation, I feel lucky that my worries are confined to having our income slashed by 30% this month because of canceled appointments and wondering if we're going to be able to locate toilet paper or milk when these things run out. It could have been so much worse.

Since this happened, I've grown much more panicky with any small quake. I wasn't sanguine before, but it's much scarier now. Because the big one started small and grew progressively larger, my heart starts racing with every aftershock. I wonder where it's going to go. I also have made bread and muffins twice since the quake (I bake a lot) and each time I've felt like this activity is related to quakes. Placing the trays of muffins aside to cool or seeing them sitting there makes me think of that quake and how I felt for the duration. I'm sure that eventually these associations will weaken and I'll stop thinking every little tremor is going to become a really big one, but for now, that fear is still with me as I'm sure it remains with many others.