Of tremors and tides and reactors

April 11, 2011. One month since nature knocked out large parts of Japan with ruthless ferocity. March 11th 2011 started out like just another day in the lives of people here. Crowded trains, busy streets, work, meetings, the usual stuff. People doing what they always do. Everything changed in a matter of a few minutes after 14:46 JST, when the strongest earthquake in the country’s history made its presence felt in the North-Eastern shores.

The 14:46 earthquake that shook Japan on March 11, 2011

Shilpa and I were sitting in a coffee shop in a busy office district of Tokyo, when a centralized alarm system went off warning us that a strong earthquake was imminent in about 54 seconds. The recorded voice continued to blare out the countdown over the public announcement system. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…. at first, it was just a minor tremor… we thought, what the heck… so much fuss over this? We’ve seen much worse. As we ignorantly smiled about the presumed “over-reaction”, we realized that the tremor wasn’t stopping. In fact, it was gradually becoming stronger and just as the smiles on our faces gave way to signs of concern, we felt the earth move like never before. The first reaction was to run out. Just pick up your bag and go… get out of the building. Some of the people around us were less worked up (probably because they also assumed that this was just another earthquake), but we were quite scared, to be honest. Living in Japan for a long long time, we have experienced countless earthquakes. But this was different. In those few fleeting seconds, we knew this was going to be bad. By the time we made up our minds to exit the coffee shop and go out on to the road, the shaking stopped. This was almost a minute after the first tremors were felt. Composing ourselves, we settled back into our seats and talked about what to do next. We had a meeting with a client scheduled at 15:00. Hundreds of people had come out on to the streets… alarms had gone off at all high-rises. Safety drills had taught people to run out of buildings as quickly as possible in case of a strong earthquake. Visibly shaken men and women in business suits (some with white helmets on their heads) looked around and waited. Several aftershocks followed the initial “big one”.

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When we reached the client’s office, we found that everyone was out on the walkway as a safety measure. Most buildings in Tokyo, especially the newer commercial buildings, are built to withstand strong earthquakes. But people still play it safe by doing what the drills teach them to do. The client informed us that we cannot go back into the building till it is deemed to be safe. So we waited for an hour more. Even as we waited, we felt aftershocks almost every few minutes. Finally, the building staff indicated that we could go back in. But the earthquake had resulted in a precautionary shut down of the elevators, so we had to walk up 11 floors! As ridiculous as it may sound, our meeting went on while the aftershocks continued to sway the building. We could hear the walls and metal frames squeak and creak, and we prayed that all the technology that had gone into making these buildings “earthquake-proof” would keep us safe today. The thought of being on the 11th floor of a collapsing building was downright terrifying! After what seemed to be a rather long one hour, the meeting concluded and we walked down 11 floors and out onto the road. Being winter, light had started to fade and we saw thousands of people everywhere. It was quite obvious that this was a very serious situation. Our mobile phones had lost connectivity. We could not make any calls. Internet connectivity was also off, but came back a little later. I checked the news and various social networks. First thing to do was to let family and friends back home know that we were safe. Twitter and Facebook came to the rescue as we hurriedly updated our status. We tried calling our friends and colleagues in Tokyo, but the mobile phone network was completely down. We could sense the fear and uncertainty around us. Trains had been stopped as a safety measure. There were huge lines at taxi and bus stands. Public phones appeared to be working and scores of people were lining up in front of any phone booth they could find with the aim of calling up their near and dear ones to let them know what was going on. We had never seen something like this before. And this would not be the only thing we had never seen before.

Crowded streets

Thousands of people walking as public transportation grinds to a halt.

Tokyo streets

As the minutes passed, and we weighed our options, the streets got even more crowded. The police were out on the streets to control the huge mass of people… doing their best to manage the traffic and crossings. Our own office was about 6 km from our present location. It was clear to us that we didn’t stand a chance of getting any transportation so we decided to walk. We had not had any lunch that day and we were now feeling quite hungry. We came across a soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) outlet where we grabbed a quick bowl of hot noodles to keep us warm and give us some energy for the long walk ahead.

As we started walking, we noticed a huge display on which NHK News was showing live footage of the North-Eastern region of Japan. The earthquake was rated at 8.9 on the Richter scale (later upgraded to 9.0). But what was even more shocking was the footage we were seeing of huge tsunamis and whirlpools in the ocean nothing short of the typical Hollywood doomsday movie! It was distressing to see vast waves raging across the land washing away buildings, cars, people, animals…. this was a calamity unfolding in front of our eyes and all we could do was stand and watch in horror. Never before had we experienced the emotions that suddenly overwhelmed us as we continued to stare at the massive screen. Is this really happening in Japan? That was when most people were beginning to get a grasp of the scale of the incident… this would most likely turn out to be one of the biggest disasters to hit Japan.

A giant screen shows NHK's live footage of the tsunami as it raged through coastal towns.

Destruction unfolds right in front of our eyes and all we can do is stare in disbelief at the screen...

After watching the news for some time, we knew that getting home would not be easy. The roads resembled those in any city in India… thousands of people… walking…. or standing in lines stretching several blocks. We joined the walking masses and managed to reach our office. The intensity of the earthquake was quite evident. Monitors had tumbled on the tables or on to the floor. A few files and boxes had been pushed out of closed cupboards. A couple of cabinets which had wheels had rolled across the room. Photo frames on the walls were dislocated or had crashed to the floor. I quickly checked out our essential equipment to ensure that nothing was seriously damaged. Fortunately, nothing was, and things were restored to their original locations within a few minutes. I put in some additional re-enforcements to protect the equipment from further aftershocks and then we started thinking about what to do next. On the way to the office, we saw that the roads were so packed with traffic, that even if we did manage to get hold of a cab, it would take us several hours to reach home. We checked the status of trains but services were still halted and there was no indication as to how much longer they would remain that way. It was becoming more and more obvious that the only way of going home would be to walk the entire stretch of almost 16 km.. It was freezing cold outside and there was absolutely no encouraging factor pushing us to start the uncomfortable trek. One option we did consider was spending the night at the office itself. But we were worried about the situation at home. We had no idea what impact the earthquake had there. We needed to get home, so we finally made up our minds and decided to walk back after having some hot coffee.

We chose to walk along our usual train route so that we could monitor the status of the trains and get onto one in case services resumed. About an hour after we started walking, we noticed that one particular train line was about to re-open. Feeling relieved, we ran down the stairs of the station… only to see thousands of passengers packed on the platform… worse than a can of sardines. Neither of us are fond of suffocating environments and it was clear that even if did manage to make it into the train, the ride would be excruciatingly difficult. We gave up the idea and headed back to the road, resigned to the prospect of a long walk. We did get a train ride across a very long bridge that cut our walk down by a few km., but even so, by the time we reached home, it was way past midnight and we had walked for more than 6 hours that day. Cold, exhausted and hungry, it was a huge relief to us that there was absolutely no damage in the house other than a broken vase and a few decorative items. A lot of stuff had been shaken off from their original positions, but they were not damaged. For the next 12 hours or so, we were glued to the TV as more and more bad news kept coming. All this while, the aftershocks continued… and there was a time when I was no longer sure whether it was really the earth shaking or it was my body that was caught up in some weird state of continuous motion.

NHK was doing an amazing job of broadcasting outstanding footage from the affected areas. The scenes of utter destruction caused by the earthquake and the tsunamis were hard to comprehend. Along with news about the natural disasters, bits and pieces of information about some problems at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant were coming through as well. At first, we didn’t pay much attention to it as the more obvious images of trashed towns and villages and unbelievable videos of raging tsunamis captured our attention. But then, more and more air time started to be given to news about the nuclear power plant. Aerial images of the Fukushima Daiichi plant showed that considerable damage had been done to the plant by the tsunami. It was not yet clear what had happened inside. Word started coming in that cooling functions had stopped at the plant and the nuclear fuel rods which are submerged in water to keep them cool were now heating up as the water was evaporating. Scientists were brought into the NHK and TBS studios to discuss about the situation. Words like spent fuel, suppression pool, containment vessel, etc. figured strongly in these discussions. As the hours went by, the situation at the Fukushima power plant was becoming increasingly serious. Experts started talking about “meltdowns” and explosions and leaking radioactivity. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island made their way into the conversations. Micro-sieverts, milli-sieverts and other such units of radiation measurement started floating around everywhere. And somewhere in between, there was a news alert and video of a huge explosion at one of the 6 reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. An explosion at a nuclear plant had to be bad news. And then there was smoke emanating from the reactor, sometimes white, sometimes black… TEPCO, the power company that operates the nuclear plant and supplies electricity to most of Japan confirms the explosion but states that it was a Hydrogen explosion in the containment building walls and the reactors containing the nuclear fuel rods were safe.

Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano

Edano kanbochou (Mr. Yukio Edano is the Chief Cabinet Secretary of PM Kan’s Cabinet) became the face of the Government’s response to this crisis. His light blue emergency response uniform and his tense face and to-the-point manner of providing information to the media turned into a symbol of stability and a perceived sense of confidence that everything possible was being done to bring the situation under control. For many like us, Edano san came across as a very capable and sincere person who was doing his best to control the situation. But as the weekend progressed, the nuclear situation got worse. Multiple explosions, conflicting and partial updates from TEPCO made everyone feel more and more unsure of what was really happening at the plant. By the time news about radioactive material leaking from the nuclear plant spread across the world, everyone knew that this was bigger than anything Japan had gone through before. PM Kan went on national television saying that this was the most serious crisis to hit Japan since the second World War.

As the new week started, life was thrown completely out of gear. Transportation systems were under severe stress and were finding it hard to deal with power shortages that were caused due to several closed power plants that had gone off the grid after the earthquake and tsunamis. The Govt. urged people to cut down on power consumption and warned that mass rolling power cuts would be required to manage the power situation. Real time news of increasing trouble at the nuclear power plant added to the chaos… and fear. Japan, unfortunately, does not have a reputation of being a very open country when it comes to disclosing information about emergencies. History has shown that on numerous occasions, the Japanese Government and other agencies have withheld information from the public for some unexplained reasons. This time, it was very clear that this was a very very dangerous situation and if the concerned agencies (mainly TEPCO) was not forthcoming with accurate information about what was really happening, the problem could become exceedingly difficult to handle. The tsunami had destroyed all the emergency systems that were in place at the nuclear plant. A complete loss of power meant that the pumps which circulated fresh water to keep the fuel rods cool had stopped working. As a result, the fuel rods started heating up and temperatures started approaching levels where a meltdown was imminent. Explosions at the plant damaged the reactor buildings severely and also left the spent fuel pools exposed to the atmosphere. At one point, it appeared that everything that could go wrong, was actually going very badly wrong. Widespread tsunami damage hindered the progress of emergency response teams and leaking radiation made it extremely dangerous for TEPCO workers to carry out repairs at the plant.

Earthquake and Tsunami damage - Dai Ichi Power Plant, Japan

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant - smoke from Reactor 3

International pressure from other countries mounted. The media aggressively reported with whatever updates they could get their hands on. This is the time when, I think, Japan lost the chance to control the problem from getting worse. Their initial reaction, for whatever reason, was slower than what the situation demanded. In stead of going into a shell and rejecting offers of help from other nations which had experience of tackling nuclear emergencies, Japan should have approached the problem more aggressively by taking in all the help they could get. The initial delay proved to be rather costly for the country. Hundreds of thousands of people started moving as far away as possible from the affected regions. The fear of radiation in the air and the food and the water and the scores of aftershocks that kept on rocking the country prompted everyone to take several precautionary measures. Within a few days, shelves in department stores across the country started to get empty as people stocked up on food and bottled water and it became impossible for the stores to replenish their stocks due to transportation and supply difficulties.

Empty shelves at department stores

Empty shelves at department stores

Bread shop shelves also empty out in a matter of hours

As the week dragged on, radiation levels at and around the nuclear plant sored. Abnormally high radiation levels were detected in a 20 km radius from the nuclear plant, prompting the Government to order emergency evacuations of everyone living in those parts. Within days, the hastily evacuated towns and villages started to resemble a barren wasteland devoid of life, except for a large number of farm animals and pets who were abandoned for no fault of their own.

Abandoned or dead horses in a stable.

Abandoned pets wait to be fed by their owners...

Deserted town

High radiation started to be detected across vast regions of Japan, even in Tokyo, where the water in the city was found to be unsuitable for consumption by infants. Many foreigners, especially families with little children or pregnant women, chose to leave Japan to stay protected from health risks. Foreign embassies published travel advisories warning people about the risks and advised against non-essential travel to Japan. Countries like France straight away asked their citizens in Japan to leave the country. Even though this so called exodus of foreigners was severely criticized by many Japanese people (those who left are referred to as “Flygins”), it must be understood that most of those who left did so because they were scared. It was not an act of betrayal. When disasters happen, the first thing people thing about are their families… the children… to-be mothers. There is also immense pressure from family members back in their home countries to come back for the sake of safety.

While all this was happening, experts from all quarters continuously discussed about the rapidly worsening situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. More and more facts started coming out and there was no doubt that this was going to be a prolonged situation. Days passed. TEPCO workers battled to get things under control but the working conditions were terrible. Extremely high levels of radiation, no power, limited food and rest. Everything was going against them. Fighting an invisible and deadly enemy was the worst thing that any of these brave workers had ever encountered. The “Fukushima 50”, actually more than 300 workers who were working in shifts at the nuclear plant, brought back memories of the Chernobyl Liquidators who had put their own lives in tremendous danger to save millions of people.

Fukushima 50 - TEPCO workers at the Fukushima power plant

Fukushima 50 - TEPCO workers at the Fukushima power plant

One month has passed since the terrifying earthquake struck this beautiful country. Even today, a very strong aftershock rattled the nation sparking concerns about tsunamis and further damage to the crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima. Fortunately though, the aftershock did not worsen the situation. But all of us know now that the problems are far from over. The nuclear disaster will drag on for months and years. Several decades will go by before the Fukushima power plant is safely controlled, if ever. In fact, at this moment, no one knows how long this will take and there is still ample cause for worry as workers continue to struggle through the crisis. A huge amount of international assistance is now being deployed to implement measures to stop ongoing radiation leaks. But radioactive material goes on spreading into the land and the ocean. Only time will testify as to how severe an impact this disaster will have on the environment. Marine life in the ocean close to the North-eastern coast of Japan has already been exposed to dangerous levels of radioactive toxins. Vast expanses of farm land have been rendered useless possibly for centuries to come. Thousands of lives have been lost. Thousands of people have lost their homes, their land and everything else that was valuable to them. Historic structures have been washed away. Some of the most scenic places in Japan will probably remain out of bounds forever. Things that can never be replaced are permanently lost. A huge concern would also be with what would happen if the leakage cannot be plugged by TEPCO in the next few weeks… how far would the poison spread… what would the long term effects be? These are all questions that have virtually no answers right now.

Throughout this crisis, one notable aspect has been the response of the Japanese people. Their astonishing maturity and sense of restraint has been something to learn from. Any other country would have collapsed under the pressure of these multiple disasters. But Japan has shown tremendous strength of character. Even when Tokyo’s infrastructural efficiency was stretched beyond its breaking point, the people did not react in panic or go on a crime spree. The law and order situation never went out of control. Years of training, preparation and practice had taught people how to react, where to go, what to do and what to NOT do. And everyone responded accordingly. My respect for this country has gone up manifold. Japan’s often criticized fixation with quality and perfection actually saved millions of lives.

Life goes on. All of us are now trying to get back to our normal lives, no matter how challenging that may be. We have faith in the people who are on the front-lines of this calamity. All we can do is wait and see what transpires and pray for a miracle. Because if there is one time in the history of Japan when it really needs a miracle, it is now.

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