The Tohoku Earthquake on 3.11 - My Experience
Earthquake - An Experience I'll Never Forget
It was a typical Friday in March - March 11, 2011 to be exact. I was working at home on my laptop in the living room. I had the TV on as background noise while my dog, Justin, was happily licking away at his chew toy. I was intensely concentrating on my work as I was doing freelance translation at the time and I wasn't really aware of time. Suddenly we were experiencing an earthquake, but I live in Tokyo and earthquakes are a common occurrence.
At first I hardly took notice and for the first five seconds, I kept on working without a second thought to the initial tremors. I looked over at Justin, who looked a bit startled, and patted him on the head to assure him that everything's fine. I would have never thought in a million years that this would be a big one.
This is a story of my experience with the big earthquake.
*Pictures all taken by myself unless otherwise noted.
Stores from the Japan Earthquake
It Was Not Your Typical Friday in Tokyo
I live in Nakano Ward in Tokyo near Shinjuku, one of the major hubs in Tokyo. Our city is a strange one in that it's made up of 23 wards that adds up to a gigantic metropolis. I live on the 8th floor of an apartment with a nice view of the city. On clear days, you can even see Mt. Fuji in the distance.
When the tremors started that day, most of us in Tokyo didn't think much of it. We've always known about the fact that Japan is located in the Ring of Fire and scientists have warned us to expect a major earthquake to occur in Tokyo for a long time now. I guess none of us expected it to happen in our lifetime.
At approximately 2:46 PM, the first tremors started. For the first 20 seconds or so, it felt like one of our usual minor earthquakes. I remember thinking to myself that it's no big deal and it's going to stop shaking soon. This time it didn't. It just kept going and was the longest one I've ever experienced. After about 20 seconds ( which feels like a long time during an earthquake ) , the TV sent out an automatic earthquake warning signal. At the same time, my phone started to emit a sound I've never heard before. It was our earthquake warning signal that alerts us to prepare for an earthquake. I sensed that it might be better to take precautionary measures so I grabbed Justin in my arms and decided to duck under the dining table just in case.
*Photo credit : Wikipedia ( photo of Shinjuku )
I was not prepared and had it been worse in Tokyo, I'm not sure if I would have survived. I only had a bottle of water, a backpack and meds! I didn't even have warm clothes to keep me warm. It was freezing outside and I went outside in my pajamas.
After the earthquake, most of us in Tokyo now have a backpack with supplies ready near the entrance. I cannot emphasize to you how important it is to be prepared.
Earthquake Early Warning Signal for Cell Phones
All cell phones and smarphones in Japan will ring the earthquake warning signal no matter what you are doing if an earthquake is expected to hit. This is what it sounds like. It's loud and nerve-wracking.
My Worst Nightmare Comes True
By this time, the room kept shaking and I was starting to get nervous. "This is kind of long for an earthquake", I thought and I wobbled towards the table just in case. I really didn't think it was going to be serious and I tried to stay calm. As my dog and I stayed under the table, the tremor continued and it was starting to get annoying and I really just wanted it to stop. After a few more seconds I could hear the reporter's voice on the TV telling us to take precautionary measures just in case. I remember thinking to myself, " We are due for a big earthquake but what chances do we have that this would be the one? Nah, there's no way. I'm just being paranoid".
The tremors started to get smaller and I had just started thinking it would all end. Suddenly with no warning, the room started to shake violently to the point where everything in front of my eyes were just a blur. Things started to fall off the shelves-books, glasses and cups, and then it really got serious! The shaking got really intense and at this moment I thought to myself, "This is the day I'm going to die!" I wrapped my body around my dog hoping that he would somehow survive and I kept praying that I would die a quick and painless death.
After awhile the shaking subsided and the entire building just swayed from side to side like a boat lost at sea. "I'm still alive" , I thought. I couldn't believe it! I immediately went into survival mode and started to take action. The building wouldn't stop swaying and I could see the building across from me swaying and I got scared thinking the building would collapse. I quickly got to my feet and went on automatic pilot. I decided to go outside because I didn't know whether it was safe to stay in my building so I grabbed a backpack, put a bottle of water in it, grabbed my anxiety meds and left with Justin in my arms. This is when I noticed that I was breathing hard like those people you see in scary movies. I couldn't believe what had just happened.
*Photo credit : Wikipedia
Deciding to Head Home
I ran outside and the elevators were understandably not operating so I ran downstairs with my dog under my arm as the building kept swaying from side to side. It was dizzying and horrifying not knowing what to expect. I kept expecting the building to collapse! I ran into a neighbor downstairs who was also in a state of panic and asked if she knew what we should do. She didn't have a clue but said that we should head to the school which was a 10 minute walk from my apartment.
I decided that's what I'd do so I started to walk in that direction. At this exact moment I realized how heavy my dog was and how cold it was outside but I was scared as hell. All I knew was that I was alive and needed to survive. The earth would periodically shake and roll from side to side, making it hard to walk in a straight line. I noticed people crouching down towards the ground every time the earth shook.
I noticed a massive crowd outside the neighborhood electronics store. They were all watching the news on television that was being shown in the shop window. A serious tsunami warning was in effect and there were some damages that occurred in Tokyo including a couple of fires. All trains had stopped running and news reporters were telling everyone to stay away from buildings for fear of falling debris and glass. I realized that I was cold and I needed something other than flimsy pajamas to help me survive. I took a chance and headed on home.
*Photo credit : Wikipedia (fire in Tokyo after the quake)
Returning to My Apartment
When I got home, the building was no longer swaying so decided that it was safe to enter. As soon as I entered my living room, I noticed how bad it was. My house was a mess-shattered plates and glasses, laptop on the floor, a toppled bookshelf. The television was on as I left it and I heard the reporter saying that the tsunami were about to hit some parts of Japan. The tsunami devestated cities that were located on the coastline near the epicenter. Fires broke out in various places around Tokyo and some buildings had collapsed in the city. The disaster unfolded right before my eyes on TV.
I still couldn't get a hold of any of my friends on the phone and after awhile I gave up. I also remembered that a good friend of mine lived in Fukushima, which was one of the cities that got hit by the tsunami. Understandably I couldn't get a hold of him and I prayed that he and his family were safe.
I kept the news on for 24 hours while my phone kept ringing with the earthquake emergency signal. Aftershocks were continuous and virtually non-stop. The tsunami caused massive damage and we still didn't know how many people had lost their lives. However reporters were predicting the worse.
*Photo credit: Wikipedia (aerial shot of Sendai from a helicopter)
Earthquake and Tsunami Caught on Video
Supplies You Should Have In Case of Emergencies
During my experience, there were so many things I should have had in my apartment. Here are some things you might want to keep in case of emergencies.
Events Following the Quake
The next 24 hours was filled with bad news. I didn't sleep a wink since the earthquake hit and it had been 36 hours before I could sleep. The nuclear power plants in Fukushima were having problems as they were damaged by the tsunami waves. The number of casualties kept rising and aftershocks kept on coming. Stores were filled with people buying extra food and water in Tokyo. Everything was uncertain and nothing was clear except for the fact that something very serious just happened.
For the seven days after the quake hit, it would be difficult to find everyday supplies such as toilet and tissue paper. Food was gone from shelves and the only things left were condiments and spices. The government asked everyone to stop buying in bulk so that those in the worst hit areas would have adequate supplies. I finally got a hold of friends and, with the exception of the one that lived in Fukushima, everyone was ok. My mother, who lives in Hawaii, finally got a hold of me and had a case of water sent to me.
After the first 48 hours had passed, I dove into work because I needed a distraction from all the chaos. I started to feel sick mentally as well as physically and I knew all the events were getting to me. I told myself that I had to just accept what had happened and get on with life.
My family in Hawaii tried to persuade me to come back to Hawaii for awhile, but I had no desire or felt the need to leave. Tokyo was my home and all my friends were here. It didn't feel right to just leave so I stayed.
*Photo credit : Wikipedia (damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima)
Six Months Later
In less than 24 hours, transportation in Tokyo was pretty much back to normal. People went back to work. Everyone was in mourning for those whose lives were lost so places such as theme parks were temporarily closed and restaurants were all but empty in the city. Parties were cancelled and celebrations were postponed. A few weeks passed and food supplies were back to normal at least in Tokyo. My friend, who lived in Fukushima, finally called me a month later and needless to say, I was relieved. He didn't have phone service and they had lost their home to the tsunami, but fortunately his family was safe. He had lost his job since the company he worked for was damaged by the tsunami. He was having frequent panic attacks now and was thinking of moving away to another town. His mother wanted to stay.
Six months had passed before I decided to go and make a visit to Ishonomaki, one of the hardest hit areas. I don't know why I felt a strong need to go there but I knew I had to see it for myself. My friends and I had a charity event for the disaster shortly after the disaster. My family and friends overseas did their best to contribute financially and I was grateful for that. Yet, I still needed to visit the disaster area so that I would not forget. For reasons unknown to myself, I didn't want to forget this life-changing event.
*Photo taken by me of a temple in Ishinomaki. This was a design I made for charity.
My Visit to IshinomakiClick thumbnail to view full-size
Ishonomaki - A Closer LookClick thumbnail to view full-size
Life Goes On
As I looked out at the sea near Ishonomaki, I wondered what else I could do to help. I asked myself why I had to come and see all this for myself. Looking out at the calm waters, all I could see was beauty and hope for the future. As I looked around town hopping into stores that were open, I noticed something odd. I guess I expected people to look sad and hopeless but instead, shop owners smiled brightly and chatted with me. When I asked them about the event, they politely answered and were happy to talk about it. I then realized that all they wanted was to move forward and to get on with their lives. I saw no beggars on the streets and everyone was working together to rebuild the town they grew up in.
I am glad I made this trip out here because I now know with certainty, that Ishinomaki and all the other devastated towns, will be fine and they will come out stronger than ever. I was happy to see the strength in people and their will to keep on going despite all that's happened.
It's been over two years since that fateful day. All of us living in Tokyo are still expecting the big one to directly hit Tokyo. Scientists predict this will happen in our lifetime. We don't know when exactly this will happen, but I can tell you that this time, we will be much more prepared.
*Photo of myself looking out at the beauty of Ishinomaki.
Thank You from Japan
In this video, people from the Tohoku area are expressing their thanks for all the support from around the world. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone around the world who have helped Japan get back on its feet. I know I speak for everyone and I don't take that for granted and I never will. I have seen so much kindness from people during this time.
Have you ever experienced a major disaster? What were your experiences? Please feel free to share your thoughts. Thanks for reading. :)