26 Apr 2011

My experience of earthquakes

Japan is the nation that lives with earthquakes. I wonder why people live in this earthquake country. Why we don't leave, even though we know it will definitely happen?

We have disaster drills at school every year and learn to keep our heads under desks when earthquakes are happening. At home, we need to have emergency supplies; bottles of water, some instant food, a radio, a torch and so on, to survive several days until essential utilities are back.

My first memory of an earthquake is this: I was about 4 years old. I was on the way to my friend’s house in my neighbourhood. Something was happening; an electrical cable was swinging above my head and when I looked at the lion knocker of the gate next to me, I felt something scary (as if a lion would come out from the door). I rushed into my friend’s house. My friend and her family were outside a door and asked me ‘Are you OK?’ It was the moment when I absolutely understood what the earthquake is.

I also experienced the 1978 Miyagi earthquake at 17:14 in 12 June, 1978. It had a magnitude of 7.7 and triggered a small tsunami. The earthquake caused 28 deaths and over 1,300 injuries. My house was heavily damaged; it was just a year and half after it was built. I was a kindergartener and washing my hands in the lavatory at that time. I heard the clatter of the glass door; in a hurry, my mother called my name, and I just ran out. She was outside and crouched down on the ground with my sister. A tall bookshelf fell down after I passed! Almost all the dishes fell down; closets and drawers were open and fell, many things were scattered about on the floor. I still remember the ground moving in a circle, like some creatures. My father was out of the house for a business trip and we spent the night with neighbours. The city lost power, water and gas for several days. It was said that the earthquakes with similar magnitudes in the same epicentre would occur once in thirty years 99% of the time. So, when the earthquake happened on 11 March, not only me but everyone thought 'There it is! It comes at last!' Actually we also had strongish earthquakes on 8 and 9 March, and I got the feeling similar one is going to happen again, but this one was beyond expectation.

On 11 March 2011, I was sitting at my desk in the office on 4th floor. We felt the earthquake, and it became stronger and stronger. My body was swinging from side to side; I wasn't able to stand without holding my desk. Desk drawers opened, many papers fell down from my desk. I saw lots of books falling from the bookshelf, copy machine moved, some computers and monitors fell down from other desks, and electricity flashed on and off and finally off. The building is relatively new, but the image of it collapsing flashed through my mind. On 22 February, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake had just struck near Christchurch, New Zealand, and it had become big news in Japan because this could happen to us; and also there were about 30 Japanese language students inside the CTV building when it collapsed.

It was really scary and I felt as if earthquake lasted for a few seconds. And then, we evacuated the building by emergency stairs; there were some falling tiles. We gathered in the evacuation area (the nearest park). Many strong aftershocks occurred in quick succession, and I couldn't stop shivering. It was the strongest earthquake I have ever experienced. I've heard about 10m-height tsunami warnings but had no idea at that time.

Buildings around the office seemed OK, amazingly there weren't collapsed buildings, how wonderful Japanese architectural technology is! But everything was paralyzed - trains, traffic lights, shops etc. Everybody walked toward their home. After the shocks we had snow like in winter, and roads were covered by snow in split seconds. It was really weird weather. The telephone lines were busy but I could exchange emails by cell phone with my parents and sister and then I could know that they were fine.

On my way home, I visited my grandmother who lives on the 7th floor of a condominium with her son. She is 96 years old and physically disabled. When I climbed upstairs, I met her and my uncle on the 5th floor. It was a day that she went to a day-care centre and they huffed and puffed up stairs very slowly. They were ok. I helped some and stayed with them for awhile. They felt uneasy but neighbours helped them so I started to walk toward my house.

It was so dark. There were neither street lights nor lights from houses, only some cars passing by, and ironically I could see beautiful stars in the sky. Looking back, I think it was dangerous. I couldn’t see the sagging or lifting road very well, but I just worried if there was no home. When I got home it was around 9:00pm, my house was still standing, in the dark! When I unlocked and opened the front door, it made a creaking noise, and my parents came out from the dark holding torches in their hands. They were in the dark with some candles and the radio was on. The radio anchor focused almost exclusively on reading emails from people. They said ‘We are on the top of the xxx building and are isolated, please rescue us!', 'We can see a young girl is holding the roof, please help her', 'We are on the top of xxx building, there are about 300 people, we don’t have any food, it’s cold, please rescue us'. 'My cell phone-battery is almost dead, please rescue me, I am on the top of xxx building’, ‘I have 2 children, water rising up but we can’t go to the roof, please help us soon!', 'We are 4th floor of the xxx building, water is rising.’ ‘There is an injured person here, please help us', 'we can see a fire over there…'. Such were the emails that arrived at the radio station. I couldn’t imagine their situations, over 10m tsunami caused great damage to a wide range of coastal areas. The northern part of Miyagi is known as ‘Ria coast’, and had been damaged hugely by tsunami in the past; but the beach near Sendai is flat near the sea in the southern part of Miyagi. It was a cold night; many people were wet, and freezing and waiting for rescue. We were wrapped in blankets and spent a time with candles (strictly speaking candles are dangerous) and the radio. I couldn’t sleep; aftershocks occurred every few minutes. I was listening to the radio and thinking about what happened, and what next. Radio was the only way to get information, but the news was unbelievable and really nightmarish…

The power was back after 3 days, 9 days for water and 35 days for gas in my area; at one point about 3,700 engineers from 51 gas companies came to Sendai to help repair gas lines. Some came from as far away as Hokkaido and Kyushu area. From the world's viewpoint, I think utilities were back quickly, though it was tough to live without essential utilities; we are accustomed to an enjoyable and easy life. We lost a normal life after the devastating earthquake and tsunami; in the first a couple weeks, most shops were closed and there were long queues to get water, to buy foods and petrol, because roads, bridges, railways, airports and harbours were destroyed, all routes were stopped and delivery vehicles couldn't run.

It is said that the largest aftershock will surely occur after the main shock in the same area within a couple of months, it’s usually less violent than the main earthquake, but you have to be careful because buildings are already damaged and weakened. And almost a month later, the aftershock of magnitude of 7.1 occurred at 23:32 in 7 April. It was 30 minutes after I dropped off to sleep. It happened suddenly - I jumped out of bed and was in a panic, shouting and searching a torch in the dark. I struggled to stand up and find the door. In my opinion, it was more frightening than the more powerful 11 March earthquake because it was dark and I was sleeping. I ran water into the bathtub just in case we would not be able to flush the toilet during a water outage. Fortunately water was ok, but the power went out in some areas for a day.

Earthquakes occur somewhere in the world everyday, so you had better to keep in mind that if an earthquake occurs, stay until the shaking stops, and cover your face and head. If you are in a coastal area, move to higher ground immediately (there could be a tsunami warning). The Japan Meteorological Agency provides people in Japan with the Earthquake Early Warning service through media outlets such as TV, radio and cell phone.