I have two close friends, Barbara and George, who moved to Mito, Japan in 2009. Their apartment is 60 miles north of Tokyo and about 9 miles from the coast. The town was hit hard by the earthquake but was spared the tsunami because of the distance from the coast.
Barbara and George have been sending updates of their situation and have nicely agreed to let me post their accounts. Many people here in the US want to know exactly what's going on in Japan, but you'll see from these accounts that even for George and Barbara, information comes slowly. As your read, I think you'll find my friends are doing quite well considering the situation, but keep in mind these are two very capable people. They are the type of people you want on your team in a crisis: smart, resourceful, energetic. They are also funny. When I asked George if he was comfortable with me forwarding these accounts or posting them on my blog for the world to see, he said it was no problem because he left out details that were too personal, such as the color of his undies after the event.
Here are three accounts of their experience, March 12, March 13 and March 16. Thank you Barbara and George and I wish you and all the people of Japan well.
March 12, 2011 (Day after Earthquake)
Barbara and I are fine---we appreciate your concern. We just got power about an hour ago--thus wifi, cnn and skype. We were totally in the dark here about what was going on around us---maybe that was a blessing. The tsunamis were awful---I could see the local river flow upstream at two different times while standing out on the sidewalk waiting for things to settle. In Mito, we see very little real structural damage, but are feeling the infrastructure damage. No power, no phone, no water (still). No trains or buses into or out of Mito. However, we feel very fortunate. It was a real mess in our apartment---everything ended up in the middle of the floor---in the kitchen from the fridge, the cabinets, the tables, counters etc. Miraculously, only a few things were broken. In the bathroom and foyer everything was dumped into the sink or floor. The bedroom was the only structure damage with a large ceiling tile falling to the floor.
We are still feeling the aftershocks every few minutes, but so far they are like the normal shakes we feel every two weeks or so. We understand that there can be more severe aftershocks and are keeping vigilant. Last night we slept in our clothes with boots by the bed.
I have to admit, it was pretty scary. I'm amazed that our 5-story apartment building withstood the bucking and jumping it was subjected to---a few tiles broken or fallen off, a water pipe busted---just now we are receiving a mild shaking as I write this. It just destroys your sense of equilibrium when the earth starts shaking your home and tries to spit you out.
We went for a long walk today in beautiful weather----it's no fun sitting in the apartment waiting for the next shake. We waited in line for the few things offered by the stores that were open. We were really fairly well prepared with foodstuffs, candles, flashlights, etc. A nearby school had water and also put up a lot of stranded tourists and folks who were afraid to stay in their homes.
March 13, 2011
Things are continuing to improve. The response of the emergency crews and the government agencies has been exemplary. We just returned from another long walk in beautiful weather---no rain is expected until Tuesday and Wednesday. There has already been much patching of the breaks and 8-12 inch jumps or drops in the asphalt on bridge approaches and roads---even on the sidewalks and bike paths. We now have power although there are rumors of rolling blackouts due to the national shortage of power because of shutdown power plants.
We also got water to the front door today---the building cannot be connected yet due to a pipe break in our building that has to be repaired in due time. Water only 5 flights down is a real luxury that you can appreciate.
I repeat that we are very fortunate in that we are far enough from the coast to not be affected by the tsunami. I really feel for the thousands of people that are missing, dead, or homeless. We also are about 100 miles from the troubled nuclear power plants at Fukushima---although that situation seems to be under control and we are not concerned about it. I was glad to hear that NPR at least is calling it an explosion at a nuclear plant rather than a nuclear explosion. We don't know the exact situation of course but it appears that the reactor core is contained in the pressure vessel and that measures are being taken to keep it cool and contained.
We also got many questions about our whereabouts at the time of the earthquake. I (George) was at home in the apartment and Barbara was at work---much closer to the coast than the apartment. The inability to contact each other was the most worrying aspect of the event. Cell phone voice was not working, SMS was intermittent, and email by 3G was working for a time and then not. For me, the event started very much like our normal slight shakings---I was in the living room---the shaking did not stop after a few seconds like normal, but gradually increased. I heard things moving in the kitchen and went in there just in time to catch the toaster oven as it made a dive from its shelf toward the floor. About this time the building really started to rock and roll and I stupidly placed the oven back on its shelf instead of the floor and bolted for the front door taking nothing with me. When things settled down, I came back in, found my iphone, and started to clean up. However, things got to shaking again and I grabbed my coat and hat and proceeded hell bent for leather back down the stairs to the sidewalk (incidentally, made friends with some of our neighbors that I had not yet met).
Barbara was at work in an office with about 20 people. After the shaking got rough, the boss ordered everyone to get under their desks. After about 5 minutes (that seemed like more) they ventured out and evacuated the building---papers all over the place, all the computer monitors jumped from the desk to the floor. When things settled down for a few minutes, they went back in and claimed coats, briefcases, etc. No trains or buses at this time, but a colleague of B's had driven in and offered her a ride home. It took 4 hours to travel the 15 miles home. B had been trying to send SMS and phone and email during the ride. Actually reached some people---some went through---some did not. I finally thought to check email after about two hours of phoning and SMSing----B was on her way home and trying to get through Katsuta (a village halfway home). That was a real relief for me. She finally arrived about 8 in the evening and we were so relieved to be together. Her office building is one of the oldest at Tokai JAEA and sustained a major crack of one wall. She has been told not to report until at least Wednesday.
We went shopping (scavenging) again today. Our local supermarket was open, but limiting access to a set number of people----it required a wait of about 30 minutes to get in. Then, we were reminded of the "Soviet Safeway" in Arlington,VA-----where they always were advertising big sales, but when you got there the shelves were empty. We actually spent more than we have ever spent before at that grocery. Milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, meat , etc were roped off and not available for purchase because they had lost refrigeration for some time. Bread, dried raman, and other noodles were completely gone. However, we found sufficient stuff that we almost embarrassed to be buying so much-----the disaster stockpiling syndrome.
Hopefully, more news as it happens---really, hopefully no more news. If we are out of touch for a while, it will most likely be because of the rolling blackouts of electric power.
March 16, 2011
Thanks for all of your email and thoughts. This has been very comforting and makes us feel less isolated.
Currently we are still doing fairly well. Our apartment building suffered a broken water supply pipe during the earthquake and it may take a while longer until plumbers can fix it. I'm sure a private building has much lower priority than hospitals, schools, city government buildings, etc. Since Sunday afternoon, we have been able to get water from a tap just outside the apartment building - about 4 flights of stairs down from our apartment. We really cannot complain because we are well and able to get necessary supplies, although at some point we will have to tackle the laundry. Because of the lack of running water and the constant need to be ready to leave the apartment, we have not been taking so many baths and we are sleeping in our clothes, so this has minimized the normal laundry build up.
I think it would be helpful to explain where we live in Japan. We live in Mito a city of about 280,000 people about 9 miles from the east coast of Japan. This distance is generally too far from the coast for a tsunami to be a problem, however, my husband and other apartment residents noticed the nearby river flowing backwards on Friday evening while waiting for the stronger aftershocks to subside before going back into the apartment. Mito is about 60 miles north of Tokyo and 90 miles south of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Mito was rocked severely by the earthquake on Friday, but most of the buildings are standing and continue to be usable. On Friday, after the earthquake, there was widespread power and communication loss in Mito and surrounding cities.
I work at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency Research Institute in Tokai, which is about 10 miles north of Mito. The institute is located on the coast, but the tsunami impact was low compared with the Sendai and Miyagi Prefecture area, which is about 150 miles nort of Mito or about 140 miles north of Tokai. I don't have complete information, but I think only a small number of employees have been reporting to work since the earthquake. I was working in one of the oldest buildings on the institute site. About 100 people worked in this building. On Friday evening after the earthquake we noticed that there were some large vertical cracks in one of the building's support columns and people speculated that the building might no longer be usable. Last night a colleague told me about some of the conversation regarding securing new work space.
We do not own a car, so I depend on the train to get to work. Currently trains are not running in our area and the train station is blocked-off. We have heard of gasoline shortages and have noticed at least one closed gas station on Tuesday afternoon because it was out of gas. Some gas rationing is going on. We have heard that may of the north-south national roads are closed except to emergency vehicles, but I am not sure of the status. Also, on Saturday and Sunday, some of the bridges that cross the river between Mito and the roads north were closed until their integrity could be confirmed. We noticed that workers had already tried to smooth out cracks, elevation shifts, and buckles in many of the road and sidewalk surfaces.
I believe that there were very few earthquake related deaths in Mito. Most of the damage to buildings was superficial. Although, as I said most Mito buildings look structurally intact, many of the shops and other buildings around town had broken windows. Some tiles and signs were damaged. There are many masonry retaining walls in front of buildings and homes that tumbled into the roads. Many of the old-style tile roofs, which are very popular for homes, temples and shrines were broken up over large areas of the roof surfaces. Many of the traditional stone lanterns that are found around shrines and temples, which consist of stacked stone ornaments had separated and fallen to the ground. On Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday during our walk around downtown Mito we observed that very few restaurants are open. Schools are closed, as well as many businesses. Many were still cleaning up the mess and putting the broken glass and pottery out for the trash pick up. for the most part communication, electricity, water, trash pickup, etc. are restored. Repairs are underway.
Most convenience stores, some sundries, and grocery stores in the area are open. They don't seem to be able to get some of their normal stock. We have not been able to find milk, for example, but we have heard that people are also stockpiling. National authorities have requested people to not to stock up unnecessarily, but we have noticed our own temptation to do this. While the stores are open, they tend to limit the number of customers in the store at one time to maintain order and keep their workers from being overwhelmed. I took a picture yesterday n a relatively large grocery store of a completely empty aisle where various types and brands of instant noodles (ramen) are usually stocked. It's been this way for a few days, but I don't know the actual cause, whether it's over stockpiling or interrupted supply. As this is easy food to prepare if hot water is available, maybe the normal supply has been diverted north to the tsunami stricken areas.
We keep monitoring the events at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant through http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nhk-world-tv and other sources. Aside from the horrible situation there and the far reaching consequences it will surely have on Japan, the future of nuclear energy, and other areas we note that the amount of radiation released does not pose danger to us in our location. We are 90 miles away, the winds tend to blow out to sea, and the level of radiation is still quite small in the scheme of things. People within a 30 km area of the power plant are told to stay indoors as much as possible. People living within 20 km of the plant have been evacuated as of Tuesday afternoon.
Mito is not such a big city and it does not have a large international community. We rarely see western-looking people on the streets or in the shops. A few weeks ago, we went to an English-language film shown as part of a Mito film festival. In a group of about 150 filmgoers, we were the only western-looking people. Most of the native English speakers we meet in Mito are English teachers, who work in the schools or have small businesses. Therefore, although we are learning some Japanese, we are easily insulated from information about what is going on.
We are feeling so bad for the poor TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) workers and managers at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. We think they are doing the best they can under the circumstances. As someone pointed out, the NPP was designed to be as redundant as possible given the worst case scenarios that were imagined at the time. As one TEPCO manager mentioned, [paraphrase] we continue to be humbled by our attempts to control or be impervious to the strength of nature.
Also, the horrors of the tsunamis are weighing on our minds. George and I have been treated so well by the people of Japan and we are awed by their patience, stoicism, hard work, ingenuity, high degree of organization/preparedness, and concern for each other and fellow sufferers. We are trying to find ways to help out. One of our immediate actions will be to give a donation to the Japan Red Cross Society, and we have feelers out with our contacts about ideas for other ways to help in our community, even if it is not directly earthquake related. Many of you have asked if we personally need anything and the answer is no, we are able to manage well at this point. We are grateful for your offers. If you feel inclined, please consider something you might do in the spirit of helping either the Japanese or any needy cause that can use funds, intellectual capital, muscle, or positive thoughts or prayers.
We have continued to experience many aftershocks, some more severe than others. Although we felt the Tuesday night 6.2 earthquake southwest of Tokyo, it was not violent enough to get us out of bed. When we first arrived in Japan, we experienced minor earthquakes every 2 - 3 weeks. Some of the stronger ones unnerved us. I think we are a bit more hardened now, but still sober to the possibility that no matter how "ready" we think we are, we might not really be.
We will try to continue to update you.