The Japanese Earthquake
On Friday 11 March 2011 just before 3:00 pm the largest earthquake in Japanese recorded history hit with a magnitude of 9.0. I was in Tokyo at the time visiting my wife’s family. As I sat at the kitchen table, happily posting pictures of Japan on Facebook, the room began to shake. The quake started small, but with a sudden jolt. When the shaking didn’t stop I started to worry as the large cabinet rattled at my back and the light above me began to swing violently.
I moved to the middle of the room, away from anything that could fall on me. The preparation drills tell you to get under a table, put a cushion over your head, and open the door to make sure you have a way out if the house collapses. You are also supposed to shut off the gas to prevent a fire. Too many tasks during a singularly frightening and dangerous moment. All I knew was that I didn’t feel safe in the house with its paper thin walls and ceilings. I knew that that my wife and I needed to get out of the house, but first we had to put on our shoes, a frustrating secondary step when you’re trying to flee a house.
We hit the road outside as the earth shifted beneath our feet, rolling in what felt like waves. Cars were stopped in the road and our neighbors came rushing out to join us. Many crouched low to the ground trying to find some sort of stability as the earth rocked like a ship hit by a torpedo. I tried to find the safest place and realized, in the Tokyo suburban sprawl that houses 33 million people, nowhere was truly safe. Above us the sky was blackened, not by smoke but by a cat’s cradle of swinging electrical lines. Inside, outside, it didn’t matter. Nowhere was really safe.
The quake lasted for almost 3 minutes. That is a very long time when the earth is moving under your feet. The country was hit with aftershocks reaching 7.0 that would have been massive if not compared to the original.
Alarm bells rang, the TV beeped and binged as tsunami warnings flooded the airwaves. In a country used to earthquakes this was something different. Lifetime residents of Tokyo remarked how it was the biggest they had ever felt, and we weren’t even at the center of the quake.
In Northern Japan, in Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures, the devastation was only just beginning. Soon after the first quake hit, while we sat glued to the T.V., our family gathered together, we watched in horror as a 10 meter tsunami destroyed the East Coast. Cars, buses and ships crashed into each other. Entire towns were swept away, houses ablaze as the tsunami waters flooded rivers and jumped dikes. We watch helplessly as Japanese news helicopters showed us live the wall of water advancing, overtaking unsuspecting people as they fled in their cars.
We sat, we watched, and we shook as more aftershocks hit one after the other.
We were fortunate. Our family and friends were safe, if not all with us due to the complete shutdown of Tokyo’s train system which trapped millions of people in the city. I was to fly out and return to Kosovo on Saturday. I felt helpless having to leave when the need was so great. As an aid worker I spend my life jumping from one crisis to the next. Now I was leaving this crisis and my family behind.
I am writing this from an overburdened Narita Airport on a Sunday, feeling sick to my stomach at leaving my wife behind. As another earthquake hits us in the airport the steady shaking sends a women next to me into a panic and she tries to flee into multiple walls of people, each waiting to get to a check-in counter. Her husband is the only one to leave his line, he gently pulls her back, her face swollen from the frightened sobs that rack her body.
Journey Across Tokyo
My journey across Tokyo was like a post apocalyptic movie. It took me 8 hours to navigate the labyrinth of closed train lines, bloated stations, and swollen streets. Millions of people waited in patient lines, pressing into stations that had no outlet. People littered the hallways of the city’s underground shopping malls, sleeping, hugging and crying.
Throughout it all I was immensely impressed by the calmness of Japanese crowds, the straightness of the lines and the lack of pushing, shoving and anger that might have affected crowds in any other city in the world. The police funneled people to keep waves of people moving where they could.
When I finally got on a train moving towards the airport (3 train lines later) we were packed in like sardines. Picture Tokyo at rush hour, times 3, plus luggage. Except for the occasional outburst everyone bore the pain and inconvenience with remarkable stoicism during the grueling 3 hour ride. I of course missed my flight, but had my wife and family helping me to rebook as I concentrated on getting closer to the airport.
How you Can Help
Despite the trouble, and the fear of the past day, it was nothing compared to what the people of Northern Japan are going through. My heart goes out to the families of those who died in Tokyo (at the time of writing) and the nearly 1,500 dead in the North. Homes and families have been ripped apart and I’m flying away. While I can’t help physically I can help with my words, with my blog and with my network of development professionals and online publishers.
To this end I am organizing an ongoing Blog for Japan Event that will raise money for the victims of this devastating tsunami. My wife is looking for a worthy Japanese organization that non-Japanese might not know about and may have difficulty donating to.
In the coming weeks we will identify an organization (or a few) and we will promote a donation link through our blogs and online contacts. If you are interested in getting involved writing a blog post, sharing posts with friends, or just donating please sign up to the e-mail contact form below. This will allow me to send an e-mail to you when preparations are set and let you know how you can participate, donate or help pass the message along. This e-mail list will not be shared with anyone and will only be used during this short time to help raise much needed funds for the recovery of Northern Japan.
All of the money we raise will go directly to helping the victims of the quake and tsunami. We will let you know when we have found the appropriate organization(s) to donate to. We would appreciate you sending this story to others who might be interested in helping as well.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan at the this trying time.