[caption id="attachment_373" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption="Being stranded at IUJ isn't such a bad thing."][/caption]
Up until 2:45 p.m. Friday everything was as usual. After that everything was not. All caps text messages came from friends — THAT WAS NOT FUNNY, was one. Twitter and Facebook posts echoed the sentiment. Waiting for the Shinkansen at Urasa in Niigata Prefecture, I watched Tohoku being devastated by tsunami live on TV. The world had changed irrevocably for hundreds of thousands of victims. It was only the beginning.
Although I was on the west side of Honshu, the shocks were as strong as a big earthquakes. All trains were stopped. Contact with Tokyo was difficult – text messages arrived in batches; friends had had difficulty standing in Tokyo streets during the earthquake. Aftershocks continued to frighten them. Finally, a message came through, “Huge earthquake, but NOTHING broke,” bridges, buildings, were all remarkably intact.
Phone calls were impossible, email patchy, and so I relied on Facebook and Twitter, though posts sometimes disappeared. I returned to the International University of Japan, where I’d just finished a class, thinking that I would sleep in the faculty lounge. Instead, I was put up in a room over its research center. I posted a plea on Facebook for an iPhone charger and a student answered in minutes.
That evening, while endless replays of the devastating scenes from the afternoon ran on TV, I tracked the progress of friends on Facebook. Some stayed overnight in their offices. Others simply walked home. As the saying goes, everything is within walking distance if you have the time, and they did. Three hours, four and half, five, whatever it took, they made it home and then updated.
Finally, a text came from my wife, she was OK. I wanted to be there. It was terrifying, of course, but at least they could walk home. At least they were near their families and friends. Near midnight my wife called. She had walked three hours home to pick up our son — this, after being tossed about on the 29F of her office building. In a tight spot you do what you must and you always do it better for your family and friends than you would for yourself. At 2:30 a.m., I slept iPhone in hand.
At 4 a.m., Niigata-Nagano had a 6.6 earthquake right under it. The concrete building flexed wildly. I went through the choices – two meters of snow still on the ground outside, or my room: Room. The building rode the quake and then settled down for an hour of rocking aftershocks. I was evacuated to the university gym, where I tried to explain to students from developing countries why these big buildings had not crumbled (good, thick concrete and lots of steel reinforcement).
At 6 a.m., we were allowed to leave the gym and three Muslim students offered to make breakfast for me. We had fried eggs, spicy meat, bean soup, flat bread from Pakistan, and excellent coffee. It was a feast. As we ate, CNN screamed endlessly about the Tohoku devastation. I had heard that it was becoming more like Fox News, but disagree. Cable news is becoming more like ESPN. The disaster coverage sounded the halftime analysis and highlights of an NFL game — a group of empty cars catching fire, “Oh, look at that! That’s bad. You know, it’s just going to get bigger and burn all day!” Who cares about a pile of junked Suzukis? Cable news, that’s who, because that’s great visuals. Next up was a retired general on how the US military was ready to carry out humanitarian operations; and then Chad Myers, incredibly, a weatherman, who offered his opinion of the disaster, howling with anticipation of the failure of public works – “and it’s going to get a whole lot worse!”
After breakfast, I passed the day perusing Facebook, waiting in my room, and slowly going crazy with boredom and worry. Finally, a train was allowed to run after 4 p.m. and I rushed to the station. It came more than an hour later and took 3.5 hours, more that twice as long, to arrive in Tokyo, and was packed like a rush hour commuter train, and I was so grateful for it. Arriving in Tokyo Station, I knew I could walk home from there, wondered if I might have to. The station was so ghostly empty that I wondered if the subways running, but they were. By 9:30 p.m., more than 28 hours later, I was home, family and friends waiting at the station.
On Sunday, a beautiful day, we went to the park. And on Monday, I had planned to work on the 49F of the Mori Tower, Roppongi Hills. It is where I prefer to work. However, train service had been cut back since Monday and I decided to work from home. Still, a lot of people did go to work, but by Tuesday morning people were allowed to work online and by the evening companies had decided to close for the week.
All this free time gave us more time to ponder the conflicting news reports and endless headlines screaming “MELTDOWN” regarding the troubled power plant in Fukushima that had been damaged by tsunami. We remained calm, though at times that was difficult. The more mature reports came from the BBC, Reuters, and from Canada’s CBC. We didn’t understand radiation levels at all. Fortunately, we know someone who understood physics and medicine. And, of course, we did took an intensive online education in radiation and nuclear problems. Finally, we considered leaving town. We had free time, but in the end it seemed best to carry on here.
In 1995, Aum Shinrikyo, a religious cult, released nerve gas onto the subways and trains of Tokyo, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. The city seemed completely frozen in fear, but the next day everyone showed up for work. The courage to keep working keeps cities of industry running. It isn’t just Tokyo – it’s New York, London, Madrid, and Mumbai. Taking care of business is often the most useful thing you can do in a crisis.]]>