Sunday, April 10, 2011

Quake Notes

Today, it is exactly one month after 'the big one' hit us at Tsukuba-U, Ibaraki Prefecture... and I am now tired of answering questions about our quake experience in Japan.

What were you doing when the quake struck? Were things really as bad as portrayed by BBC and CNN? Have you been exposed to radiation? Will I get cancer if I sit next to you? Hahaha.

This post is just an attempt to collate my impressions and images from 3/11 and the difficult days that followed.

Shock & Awe:

I was having a late lunch at home, sitting next to our baby - 4-month-old Aki. My wife had gone to pick our daughter from her school and we were all packed-up to leave for a holiday to Kyoto & Nara as soon as she got back home. Suddenly, the ground trembled and an overhead lamp started swinging. Oh, well, another one of those regular tremors, I thought. But then the shaking just would not stop - it got stronger and stronger...cupboards opened on their own, the windowpanes rattled wildly and strange, groaning noises came from the building girders. I grabbed Aki and stumbled out of the building to see buildings swaying like reeds.

It was cloudy and cold outside and brown, windblown seeds slowly floated down, covering everything like brown, fluffy snowflakes.

Standing outside in my stockings with a baby in my arms, I was filled with an immense sense of awe - at the force of nature that made the ground beneath my feet feel like jelly, and at the buildings around me that were performing this surreal, swaying dance instead of just breaking up and collapsing.

I tried to use the mobile phone… it was useless - the lines were already clogged. Once the first tremors subsided, I tried getting into the house but the doorway had been jammed by a fallen shoe-rack. I squeezed my way in to find the house in a complete mess.  Everything had come crashing down - TV, cupboards, cutlery, bookshelves but my half-eaten lunch was still intact on the table.

Even while I was wondering about the next thing to do, the tremors resumed. This time I went out wearing my shoes and jacket, with Aki in one arm and the baby-cart in another. He was to spend the rest of the evening outdoors lying peacefully in the cart, gently rocked to sleep by the incessant aftershocks.

First Moves:

A large crowd had collected by now at the Ichinoya parking lot. Electricity, internet links, water supply had already been shut down and security personnel in blue uniforms darted from one building to another, checking for trapped people and gas leakages.

Volunteers with yellow armbands appeared and urged everybody to assemble at the Ichinoya community centre. At the assembly, a plump, elderly officer in fluorescent green windcheater told everybody to calm down and stay within the community center. Within minutes it was announced that this building too was unsafe and it was better to move to the soccer ground across the lake and over-bridge. While we waited here, I checked the only device that seemed to be working - the Kindle e-reader. Our quake was already on BBC headlines and there was some alerts about a tsunami.


Even as the crowd gathered outdoors, stunned and bewildered at the quake & aftershocks, a garbage-truck slowly trundled in. The driver stepped out, glanced nonchalantly at the fuss around him and went on to briskly load his truck. He then continued on his rounds as though nothing had happened. Similarly, the C10 city buses continued to ferry people from one place to another, running their buses on schedule, and on time!

Extra Care:

The initial uncertainty and confusion dissipated as soon as more people appeared with loudspeakers and yellow-armbands. We were moved from the increasingly chilly outdoors to a gym. Its dark, cavernous interiors had been lit up with kerosene heaters. In the orange glow everybody sat in silence, waiting for the next round of tremors to rattle the steel beams and corrugated roof, high overhead.

Buses were then arranged to ferry the students in three groups - the families were to go first, followed by the single women and men. We missed the first bus- I had cycled back home for some emergency supplies - diapers, water and snacks. Instead of just asking us to go in the buses that followed, we were ferried in a special car to the evacuation center.

A few days later while traveling back the the university in a bus, the driver made an unscheduled stop, shut down the engine and stepped out of the vehicle. Even as we wondered what was happening, he walked across to the middle of the road, picked a large branch that had fallen there, shoved it beyond the pedestrian walkway before returning to his seat. A few hundred meters away, the same procedure was repeated twice over. I wondered if such a notion would even cross the mind of a city bus driver in India.


It is past midnight...its raining and freezing cold outdoors. You are glad to be back home from the evacuation center. Even though there is no water in the taps, you have electricity and a connection to the internet. The kids are fast asleep and then, suddenly, that familiar, and, by now, dreaded rumble, starts again. You grab the kids but where do you go? If you stay indoors the building might just collapse - after all, how many shocks can a building take? It might be safer in the sleet & rain but what if the rainfall is radioactive? What do you do? Where do you go??


At the evacuation center everybody was given a pack of salted biscuits. Hoping to find something more nutritious we set out looking for shops that were still open. After walking a few miles we found that not only small convenience stores but even large stores like Seibu and Dayz Town were closed. Luckily, a friend appeared in a car and we expanded our range. Far away from Tsukuba Centre, one convenience store was still open but the shelves are already empty. The smell of smashed liquor bottles lingered in the air; the floor looks as though it has been hurriedly mopped to make way for the crowds looking for something to eat and drink.

We picked up whatever is available - snacks, tetrapacks of yogurt, dried fruits and nuts - and slowly drove back to the evacuation centre. The only eatery that seemed to be open was Sukiya, but here too, the kitchen had been moved outdoors to serve a long line of customers patiently waiting for their turn to be served take-away packets.

Amazingly, even at the few shops that remained open, goods were sold at exactly the original marked price, even when the food shortages were at their worst.


The home-seismograph

Trouble starts at Fukushima

Helmeted news-reader

Quake damage at Ichinoya
Lining-up for drinking water at Hirasuna

Wobbly pavements, Hanabatake

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