Remembering 3/11: Japan’s Triple Disaster, Five Years Later

March 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011/Reuters

The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011/Reuters

It’s hard to believe that five years have passed since the night I watched the horrifying footage of the Tohoku coastline being destroyed by tsunami. The earthquake that caused the waves measured 9.0 on the Richter scale: it was the most powerful earthquake to strike Japan and fourth most powerful recorded earthquake in the world. Nearly 20,000 people died in Tohoku that day, including some on trains that simply vanished when the tsunami struck.

Then came the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people in the vicinity. Residents of the twelve-mile-radius evacuation zone were resettled in other areas; as cleanup is estimated to take forty years, they are unlikely ever to return home.

In the aftermath of this unprecedented triple disaster, it was impossible to know how quickly Japan would recover, or even if it would. If the earthquake’s epicenter had been in Kanto, it would have been a different story, as Tokyo would have suffered the brunt of the damage. But Tohoku is considerably less populated–think New England versus the New York metropolitan area. Another reason for Japan’s recovery is its institutional strength: thanks to a strong central government and well-developed prefectural and local governments, debris was quickly cleared and roads, railway lines repaired in record time. All of the region’s many ports were operational within the year.

Though the Daiichi plant continues to leak radioactive water, today there are few reminders of the disaster outside Tohoku. When I went back to Japan on vacation in 2013, I found both Tokyo and Kyoto more opulent and overrun by tourists than ever before. Each year has brought record numbers of visitors to Japan, and in 2020 Tokyo will host the Summer Olympic Games for the second time.

As heartening as these developments are, I haven’t forgotten what happened on 3/11 and never will. Here are two posts I wrote immediately after that terrible day five years ago:

Not about Hollywood or Filmmaking: Tips for Surviving a Big Earthquake

March 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Los Angeles Faults/Courtesy NASA Earth Observatory Collection

When I was a second-grader in Tokyo, a large earthquake struck during school hours. My classmates and I had been through enough drills, as well as actual quakes, to know what to do, and got under our desks to wait it out. But this earthquake was different from the others: instead of shaking the building, it made it sway like a pendulum. The intensity of the swaying increased until the classroom felt  like a boat on rough seas. When it finally stopped, we got out from under our desks and, after calming down, finished out the day as usual. Later we learned the earthquake’s epicenter had been on the coast south of Tokyo, and that a school there had collapsed, crushing the children inside.

Since then, I’ve lived both in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles, going through earthquakes of various sizes and types. The Northridge Earthquake was probably the most violent, knocking down the brick wall and cracking the base of the chimney in the house where I lived at the time. (The chimney turned out to be supporting the entire house–but that’s another story.) But what I remember most about the Northridge Quake is that my young son and I stayed calm as the house shook violently, while my boyfriend at the time screamed and cried hysterically at each jolt. He wasn’t much better after the earthquake: despite the fact that there was no electricity or phone service, he kept switching on the TV and trying to use the phone. Downed power lines crackled outside, yet he was determined to jump in his car and drive back to Santa Monica. If I hadn’t stopped him, he would have gone–probably via the 10, which had collapsed.

The point is, staying calm is essential in a natural disaster. In Japan, accounts of level-headedness during the recent Tohoku Earthquake abound: despite its 5-minute duration, people did as they were taught in drills, taking cover and remaining calm under duress. The tsunami was a somewhat different story, since it’s hard not to panic in the face of a rapidly approaching 30-foot wall of water. Yet in seaside towns, there were instances of incredible bravery: a man carrying an old woman–who somehow remained calm–up a flight of stairs after the water rose to her nose; a teenage boy who leapt from rooftop to rooftop as the wave surged through his town.

With all that in mind, here are a few tips for getting through the next LA earthquake:

During: Get on the floor, away from windows and stairs. Standing in a doorway is not safe, despite what we were told. Taking shelter under a sturdy piece of furniture will protect you from falling objects. It’s unlikely that your building will collapse, so Doug Copp’s “Triangle of Life”–which dictates getting alongside large objects to create a safe space and air pocket for yourself–isn’t as helpful here as it would be in a place like Haiti. You’re much more likely to be hit by books and artwork, so stay under the desk. If you’re in the car, try to pull over and stop, avoiding power lines, tunnels and bridges. Stay in the car until it’s over.

After: This involves advance planning. You should know beforehand where family members will meet in the absence of phone communication. Chances are that power and phone lines won’t be working for hours or days, so it’s important to have flashlights, extra batteries and a radio that runs on batteries or alternative energy (solar or hand-cranked). You should have a wrench in order to turn off the gas at the meter. Last year, Los Angeles advised residents to prepare to fend for themselves for up to two weeks after a major earthquake–which means some serious provisioning. You will need at least 1 gallon of water per person, per day, as well as food that doesn’t require cooking. If you have cans, keep a can opener in the same place. If you have pets, you will need extra water as well as food for them. It’s a good idea to keep at least a half-tank of gas in the car at all times and–because credit cards depend on phone lines–some emergency cash. You can go much further, but these are the basics.

Above all, don’t panic.

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