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After Shock: The Big One Hits East Japan

Diary Excerpts from March 11, 2011

sunny 6 °C

BGM: Natural Mystic by Bob Marley

March 11, 2011

I'm not going to say it doesn't seem real, because ever since I took this job, this scenario had been running through my mind every single day. Except I always imagined myself dangling from the handle straps of a derailed train somewhere in the smoking Tokyo infrastructure, clinging for dear life. I think I was really damn lucky, today. So many others are facing Hell right now as I write this.

At the moment, I'm safe: I'm here on the second floor of our office building, reeling. My head feels like it wants to detach from my neck and float independent of my body. I can't watch the TV anymore; the damage all around eastern Japan is too great, too depressing. I don't want to call home and hear about how ruined and how terrible a mess it's become. I don't want to escape into the fantasy land of my iPhone. I can't relax anywhere -too bright, too noisy, too crowded. Besides, I'm still uneasy from all these aftershocks going off every 4 to 5 minutes.

Yet, my Mom endured a quake much bigger than this one. I can't be a weenie. I just can't. Resilience is supposed to run in my family.

At 2:47pm today, just two minutes into my work, fresh off from break, I thought I was having a sugar attack from lunch. Nope. "Jishin" (earthquake) my manager said calmly. But as the ground rumbled and we felt our bodies swaying, we all looked at each other in disbelief. This sucker was strong! (Alaskans and Japanese oughtta know!) We quickly ducked under some furniture, covering our heads as the shaking got stronger and stronger. Books and small objects flew off the shelves onto the floor, but the walls weren't creaking at all. (God bless Japanese quake-resistant architecture!)

As soon as the shaking died down, the building's earthquake alarms sounded like clockwork. We scrambled to our feet and evacuated the building, running to the open park in the middle of the complex. As the dust finally settled in my mind, my first real thoughts were about my husband, on the eighth floor of that old building on a riverside ledge, a whole hour's train-ride to the north. "Oh God, please don't take him," I repeated aloud as I ran, praying to be heard.

We all huddled there in the blustery cold wind and waited with children still in their pajamas, shaken mothers and worried old ladies. A group of college boys laughed in their fear, comparing stories while watching the towering buildings in nervousness. Between aftershock alerts and the grating squawks of the national emergency broadcasting system, NHK Radio played 1970's American folk like the Mamas & the Papas and John Denver, for what reason I don't know. The music was so calm and emotionless it was absolutely nerve-wracking as we saw birds panic and take flight before each new rumbling aftershock. Watching the power lines and trees swaying, we all looked up to the sky, frightened, on edge, waiting for another, bigger shock to finally take all the buildings down. Where did this come from? I asked myself. The epicenter couldn't have been here in Chiba. The buildings would've been on fire by now. The time seemed to crawl on forever until finally, another announcement from the city hall echoed throughout the town -a tsunami alert had been issued for Tokyo Bay and we at sea level had to evacuate to at least the second floor.

Before heading back to the building, I finally got through to my husband on the phone. He said that our apartment was still standing but our utilities were cut and the insides were covered in broken shards of glass from stuff thrown to the middle of the floor. He was at his office downtown by the Tone River when it hit. He said he saw the earthquake ripple through the banks like waves on the sea. After escaping the shaking building via the fire escape, he got in his car and drove home past downed power lines and crumbled old houses to find our apartment a virtual mess. As he talked to me, he sounded both elated and scared, tweaked and high on adrenaline. Up on the 8th floor of that building is no place to be during a shaker of any size! But he made it! Thank God he made it!

I had to get back to work since I was still on the clock, but I was finally able to concentrate knowing my husband was alive and unharmed. We all situated ourselves on the second floor, keeping an eye on the exit as aftershocks rocked us, one after another. Our head supervisor turned on the big screen TV and for 5 minutes, we were simply floored as we saw terrifying images of black, debris-filled ocean water sweeping gracefully, effortlessly over the rice fields of Miyagi Prefecture. It was so massive and frighteningly surreal. Of all the bone-chilling images a person could see in a lifetime, for me, that video clip of reality was the scariest.


My commute was the longest of the entire work crew and the head supervisor, very sympathetic to my situation, knew I was in for some rough times ahead. We gave each other a hug, glad to hear our husbands were unharmed. She then told me to go downstairs, clock out, watch the news and contemplate my next step, since getting home that night would be impossible. She was right. She survived the great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 in Osaka. When something this big happens, everything stops and there's nothing to do but wait -and pray.

The ground rumbled every 5 minutes as I sat there in our tiny dressing room that doubled as a lounge, eating a cereal bar on the big yellow couch. My jaw dropped as the news unfolded: Upgraded to M8.9 on the Richter scale with two epicenters (one off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture and the other off the coast of northern Ibaraki). A fire here, a deluge there, people buried in rubble, landslides and thousands feared dead -I wanted to throw up, completely overwhelmed. I found myself getting annoyed at one of my co-worker's insensitive chatter; her house was fine and she boasted that she was happily headed home, while the eight of us were still stranded there with no chance of returning to our worried families. But she'd also survived the '95 Hanshin quake, so she was entitled, I guess. Good for her. Other staff members started piling in to watch the TV until there was no more room to walk. To get out of that crowded, smelly room and to try to shake my pounding headache, I walked out to the drugstore underneath the now-quiet train tracks in hopes of securing for myself some emergency provisions.

A lonely yellow Sobu Line train sat motionless at the platform. Everyone had been evacuated out of the station and thousands of passengers in black and brown overcoats were lined up in an arc circling the entire roundabout, all patiently waiting for a chance at the payphone to call their loved ones, since everyone's cell phones were down. The main department stores had closed too, for customer safety, shutters drawn. The streets were filled with people all looking up and around in a daze. Without the trains rolling, the city was unnervingly quiet. I accidentally stepped into a pile of shattered window glass; no doubt shaken out of its frame from the quake. Matsumoto Kiyoshi drug store was closed, but I was glad to find the old mom and pop store still open. The friendly clerk in his eighties who always sells me my hand cream looked alright despite the day's events. We asked about each others' condition. He'd seen a lot of earthquakes in his day- but nothing like this, he said. I bought some ear plugs, heat packs, water, shampoo, cereal bars, antiseptic gel, tissue and a towel, wishing him good luck. He shook my hand warmly and told me to be careful.

I checked the local Family Mart convenience store to see what useful things they had. All the bottled water, batteries, toilet paper and bento boxes were already sold out! A good-sized aftershock hit just then as I shopped, rattling the racks loudly, making pencils and toys fall to the floor. I started picking up stuff and putting it back on the shelves but the clerk, smiling warmly, thanked me and told me not to bother. I asked him how he felt during the big one, since I bought some tea from him that morning before I started work. He said he was worried about the customers more than anything. What a sweetie!

I bought a recharger for my cell phone and a small peanut butter n' jelly sandwich, placing it in my pack for when I really needed it. Munching on a cereal bar, I shuffled back to the office building, looking down for broken glass and up for swaying buildings.

The two chefs at our office volunteered to cook whatever food was left in our kitchen and prepared for us a meager but nourishing meal of rice balls, chicken nuggets and wakame soup. We were extremely grateful. Some of the other workers, before walking home, dropped off boxes of donuts and snacks so we wouldn't spend the night hungry. "This isn't scary," I told one of the staff who didn't think earthquakes happened elsewhere in the world. "The nuclear reactors that often fail after an earthquake -that's the thing to worry about," I said, remembering what happened during the last big earthquake near Ibaraki. Shock was starting to settle in and I couldn't be civil in that small room with 8 gabby women pressed hip-to-hip watching the TV. Knowing I was stranded there for the night, and unable to make contact with my husband since the one time just after the earthquake, I walked alone upstairs to the empty second floor, found a chair in the cafeteria and started writing, for therapy.

I selected a corner of the room with a power outlet (and no windows) to be my emergency camp for the night. I located a tatami-size floor mat and using my parka as a comforter and a backpack for my pillow, settled in. After a while of repetitive aftershocks, you can sorta feel when they're coming; the ground begins to hum and vibrate in the distance, growing into an approaching, rumbling ripple of motion and then the shakes begin. As I rode out each wave, it felt like I was on the ferry from Otaru to Maizuru all over again, only not as pleasant. I tried calling my husband one more time. I GOT THROUGH! He decided to sleep in the car that night since the apartment was too dark and all utilities were still off-line. We gave each other survival advice and cut it short to save our batteries. Then I checked my mail: over 40 loved ones from around the world were worried about me, praying for my safety. I let Mom and a few close friends know I was okay, requesting check-ins from my friends still in Japan. Fortunately, everyone was alright. What a miracle!

I plugged myself into my mp3 player and pushed "play." The last song I was listening to on the train to work, "Natural Mystic" by Bob Marley, finished out in my ears and for once, I truly listened to the lyrics. "Many more will have to suffer..." God, I hope not. I prayed for the lives lost, and for the ones now suffering in the cold and dark. It was still winter up north.
Somehow, miraculously, I drifted into a light sleep.

(All content copyright GenkiLee, 2012. No part shall be reproduced without the expressed written consent of the author).

Posted by GenkiLee 07:06 Archived in Japan

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