Two years ago today, on a Friday around 3pm, Japan experienced the largest earthquake to ever hit the country, and one of the biggest in recorded world history.
At the time, Crazy Sunshine was nothing but a bunch of sketches and storyboards, and I didn’t have an active blog to document what happened, so today, I’d like to retell what went down from a personal perspective.
For readers who are unfamiliar with the Touhoku Earthquake, here’s a quick summary from Wikipedia;
The 2011 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku (東北地方太平洋沖地震 Tōhoku-chihō Taiheiyō Oki Jishin), often referred to in Japan as Higashi nihon daishinsai (東日本大震災) and also known as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the 3.11 Earthquake, was a magnitude 9.03 (Mw) undersea megathrust earthquake off the coast of Japan that occurred at 14:46 JST (05:46 UTC) on 11 March 2011, with the epicentre approximately 70 kilometres (43 mi) east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tōhoku and the hypocenter at an underwater depth of approximately 32 km (20 mi). It was the most powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan, and one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900. The earthquake triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres (133 ft) in Miyako in Tōhoku’s Iwate Prefecture, and which, in the Sendai area, travelled up to 10 km (6 mi) inland. The earthquake moved Honshu (the main island of Japan) 2.4 m (8 ft) east and shifted the Earth on its axis by estimates of between 10 cm (4 in) and 25 cm (10 in).
While the earthquake and tsunami devastated major points along the eastern coast, including entire towns and multiple nuclear reactors in Fukushima, the town I live in – which is located to the north-west of Aomori – went pretty much unscathed in terms of damage and casualties.
FRIDAY – Prelude
Before the earthquake, the students had already left school and the teachers were getting ready to head home too. Usually, work is until 4 or 5pm, but during the week of entrance examinations, students have half days off, and teachers have nothing but meetings to discuss the exams after lunch.
I had just packed up and was ready to put my coat on when I tripped over. The walls started shaking, and a couple of overhead lamps fell to the ground. A very strange sensation, almost as if I was drunk. However, when a bunch of teachers grabbed me by the arms and threw me under a desk, yelling ”you’ll be safe here”, it felt more like a very odd dream.
The teacher’s office is located on the third floor of a very old school. Most modern Japanese buildings in well populated areas are built to resist earthquakes with special suspension pillars, but not this school. Chunks of concrete snapped off the walls and fell on top of parked cars while the concrete ground split open as if Lacie has had opened a portal to hell!
The shock lasted about 30 seconds, with many aftershocks (smaller earthquakes) taking place over the course of the next three days.
As the teachers got back on their feet, the electricity cut out, and we all huddled around our cellphones trying to contact friends and family. One teacher used his phone to live stream the news. Initially, sighs of relief were heard as we were told that the epicentre was out at sea, and not inland. Those sighs became screams of worry, as the news predicted gigantic tsunami waves heading towards the eastern coast at incredible speeds.
We were ordered to go home at once. My girlfriend was staying over at my house, so I leapt into my car and drove home. This was my first large-scale natural disaster and I had absolutely no idea what to do.
On the way home I could only think of one thing; it’s still winter, which, if you read my last blog entry, is not exactly paradise when it comes to northern Japan. With heavy snow, high-speed winds, an incoming tsunami and hundreds of earthquake aftershocks, the weekend was off to great start, don’t you think?
I drove into a nearby convenience store to buy some essentials like candles, batteries for my flashlight, water, and whatever food there was that didn’t need electricity to eat.
Obviously, I was not the only one who thought this way. The line to the cashier stretched throughout every aisle within the store and around the back of the building itself. After grabbing what I needed I waited in line for two hours, as without electricity staff had to write down each customer’s order on paper by hand.
My girlfriend updated me on the status of my house while I was waiting. The only source of heat – a kerosene heater – was dead, naturally. The shower, boiler and electricity were also dead, pipes were beginning to freeze, and the snow outside was getting worse. However, the gas stove in the kitchen still worked, but needed something like a match to ignite the flame.
So, I began to think to myself; The only options left are to use bottled water and cup ramen. Cup ramen will never go bad or freeze. I have a steel kettle we can boil the water in if we get matches to light up the gas stove.. Oh look, they have some chilli tomato flavour, that’ll keep us warm.
After getting the supplies in the most painful shopping experience of my life, I headed home. My car was low on gas, but since it was the weekend, and neither me nor my girlfriend had work, I thought it would be fine, as I wouldn’t be driving.
After a while, our phones died. We couldn’t contact anyone. We couldn’t hear what was going on. We just cuddled up in the bed, trying to keep each other warm as the interior of the house froze up.
SATURDAY – Eye of the Storm
Friday turned to Saturday, but I couldn’t sleep. I was so worried that if we both fell asleep, we could potentially die from the coldness. So I stayed up and made sure that never happened.
We were updated on the status of the roads, the power outage, and the incoming tsunami through the town’s tannoy system, which was being powered by hand-driven batteries that the locals had placed around some of the speakers. What we were told was not pretty.
Saturday’s weather was warmer, and we spent most of the day shovelling snow. At night, we charged up our phones using my car’s battery, and watched live streams and updates of the tsunami, while also contacting our family and telling them not to worry. We also had to sign up to an emergency disaster website and register that we were okay along with our contact details, in the case of other people searching for a way to get in touch with us.
But the car’s gasoline had almost hit zero, so this snippet of paradise in a nice, warm environment was very short lived.
SUNDAY – Aftermath
The power was still out. The pipes had completely frozen. Major roads to and from Touhoku were reported as broken, or too dangerous to drive on, so food supplies from the south couldn’t reach us. Our rations were running low, so we decided to drive out to the supermarket.
The drive was long, depressing, and emotional. Traffic lights were pure black, there were no cars on the road, and no telling if there was any food left, or if we had enough gasoline to get home.
The first two smaller stores had completely sold out, and the windows were boarded up. The third store seemed open so we checked it out. There, we were given a number and told to wait in line. It seemed they were letting people into the store, 10 at a time, and allowing them to purchase 5 items each. Once those 10 people came out, another 10 went in. We waited for an hour before getting called. Since there was two of us, we decided to go in separately so we could get 10 items. We divided up what we needed during the wait, but our plan backfired as soon as we set foot indoors.
The shelves were empty. There was no water, and no cup ramen. At first we laughed at how everyone had the same plan as us, but then we panicked. We had to get our food and get out of the store as soon as possible so more people could come in. We ended up buying the strangest combination of ready-made meals, along with mouldy bread and Fanta. I felt sorry for whoever went in after us, there was absolutely nothing better to buy!
On the drive home the car started making odd noises. Of course, gasoline. How could I forget? We passed a huge line of cars, as if there was an accident ahead. In fact, the line stretched for over a mile, and ended at a gasoline stand. As we slowed down we saw staff were using hand powered batteries here too, and rationing out gasoline. We U-turned our way to the back of the line and waited for 3 hours, starting and stopping the car each time to save fuel. 2,000 yen (20 USD) for 1 litre of gasoline, and a story about how even the gasoline trucks couldn’t make it up north due to the terrible driving conditions.
We drove home, had a disgusting lunch, and curled up in bed again. By this time, the lack of sleep got to me and I passed out.
At 3pm, exactly 2 days after the initial earthquake, I woke up to my girlfriend jumping up and down on the bed. It was bright, there were loud noises everywhere. I thought to myself “It’s happened, I’m dead.”
Turned out I wasn’t dead, and my girlfriend was just ecstatic about the electricity finally being back on. The TV was on max volume, the heater was cranked up full, and my PC had successfully booted up into Safe Mode. The power outage was over! We were safe!
…For now. While we enjoyed every second of the warmth and the ability to finally check Facebook, we were issued warnings of potential radioactive gasses spreading across all of Japan, and were told to stay indoors at all costs. We were glued to the news all of Sunday as the death count rose, the tsunami waves got bigger, and the toxic gasses spread to crops and nearby cities. All we could do was wait.
The week that followed was painful stressful. In true Japanese fashion, work wasn’t cancelled for anyone, so I dropped my girlfriend off at her house and headed to school. That goodbye on Monday morning was one of the hardest things I have had to do, knowing that we wouldn’t be together all week if another earthquake was to strike.
But in time, at least on the west coast, everything calmed down. The radioactive gas passed, the roads got fixed, food returned to stores, and students returned to school for a few more classes before a relatively peaceful spring break.
If only I could say the same thing for the east coast, where buildings from the incident 2 years ago are still being repaired and rebuilt. Victims lost to the power of the tsunami will always be remembered, and in closing, I think I can safely say that not only Japan, but the entire world will never underestimate the catastrophic power of nature again.
I hope everyone has a safe year this year!