Living Through The Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011
Ten years ago today I was sitting at my computer writing when the power cut out and the ground began shaking. I had lived in Japan for years so a little earth rumbling action was nothing new but it was immediately apparent that this was something different.
For one thing, we had never lost power before. The power grid was so reliable I immediately took the loss of power as a very bad sign. Then of course there was the shaking. It was strong and it just kept on going.
Pictures started falling off the walls. The water in the fish tank began to slosh out over the edges and I stumbled across the room to rescue the tax paperwork my spouse had left out next to the aquarium.
It was just my 13 year old and me at home. She ran to stand in a doorway. I lay down on the floor next to the couch. From our respective positions, we argued with each other about which position was safest. I had read an article. She had heard advice from her teacher. Who was right?
The most horrific sound came from one of the bedrooms. Later we realized it was an entire lincoln log village that had been constructed in my daughter's loft bed falling five feet onto the wooden floor with a terrific clatter.
The shaking went on and on and on. Six minutes of constant motion is a very long time. When it finally stopped we looked at each other in shock. What now? How do you get information with no landline phone, no internet?
My iPhone, I suddenly remembered. “What will you even search for?” my daughter asked. When you live in a country where you don’t speak the language getting local news can be a challenge.
“Earthquake,” I replied typing it in. “That was so big I bet something comes up.”
Sure enough, the screen filled with tweets coming out of Australia. “Wow, 9.0 earthquake in Japan.”
Three thoughts came in almost simultaneously. First I had never heard of an earthquake over 7 something. This was huge and had to have been far away. Second, any quake that big was going to be worldwide news, and my family back in the states would be panicking. Third, I could lose cell service at any moment.
I quickly dashed off an email to tell my family we were okay neglecting to point out that I had no idea of the status was of my husband or my two youngest children who he was supposed to pick up from school right about the time the earthquake hit.
My phone died and we were alone with our questions and the constant aftershocks.
An announcement came on over the town loudspeakers. It was in Japanese of course but we both recognized the word “tsunami”. After the Japanese came an English translation. This had never happened before. How serious must it be to provide English?
“Tsunami is coming. Leave the seaside immediately.” Define seaside I asked desperately? We lived about two miles inland. I couldn’t immediately think of higher ground. Should we stay in the house or get in the car and drive somewhere. But where?
We lived next to an apartment building. We could see that several of our neighbors had come outside and were sitting in their cars. As we watched many cars pulled into the lot. Some people stayed in their cars and some went up into their apartments.
“As long as our neighbors seem to be returning home and not driving away from here I think we should stay put,” I told my daughter.
We watched as parents pulled up to the daycare center across the street and ran in to grab their children. One small utility truck pulled up. A man jumped out of the passenger seat and raced into the building. Moments later he came out with a baby tucked under each arm. He climbed into the truck and it pulled away immediately.
Meanwhile, the loudspeaker kept repeating its ominous warning. “Tsumani. Leave the seaside immediately.”
About an hour after the earthquake hit my 12 year old and 10 year old walked in the door. They had just gotten on the school bus when the quake hit. Not knowing what else to do the bus driver had waited for the shaking to stop then drove his normal route, pausing to wait out the larger aftershocks as necessary.
They had no idea where their dad who was supposed to be picking them up was. With no cell service, there was no way to figure it out. Hours later we heard from him during one of the intermittent moments of cell service. “I’m okay. I’m helping people. I’ll be home in a few hours. Don’t drink the water. It’s contaminated. ”
With no power, there was no heat and the temperature started to drop. We pulled mattresses off of beds and made one giant bed in the living room where we all huddled together for the body heat and comfort as the ground continued to move under us with frequent aftershocks all night long.
We were without power and clean drinking water for three days. We heard about the terrible tsunami damage but it was days before we saw the horrific photos and video footage.
Then there was the frightening damage at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. So much death and destruction.
We lived over 300 km away from the epicenter of the quake. Other than some broken glass and knick-knacks our loss was minimal. But our hearts broke for the devastation in the land.
The girls and I flew back to the states for a few weeks to visit my dying father and to reduce the consumption levels on a land that was reeling from the aftermath of it all.
My husband dove into not only doing his day job but also organizing food drives to deliver fresh vegetables to the people who had lost everything but their lives to the tsunami. It takes governments and relief organizations time to get organized but one or two willing people with a minivan can collect money from all their friends and head out to the fruit and veg market and load up on supplies.
He didn’t really speak more than a word or two of Japanese prior to the earthquake. The vendors at the wholesale market didn’t know what to make of this American at first. But once they figured out what he was trying to do they were all in. To this day he can’t really carry on a conversation in Japanese but the man knows all the various names for vegetables.
It is challenging to put into words how destabilizing an earthquake is. One minute life is going on as always. The next the solid ground under your feet is no longer dependable. What else could change? We don’t cope well as humans with tangible evidence of the precariousness of life.
You only have to go through one major earthquake-like event in your life to be permanently marked with an underlying sense of the fragility of everything.
In many ways, Covid 19 has been the world’s major earthquake. It is slow-moving and ongoing but it has shaken all of us. What will the rebuilding look like? What will we be saying about it in ten years?