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Archive for March 2011

March 11, 2011: East Japan Earthquake – Part 4

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Friday March 18 – one week since the Big Discontinuity Event

Helicopters are still buzzing overhead.
Still no trains, but today I saw some workers out repairing the tracks.

I’m still in Hobara, but have a suitcase packed, so I can leave quickly if I need to evacuate. Evacuating to Yonezawa is a bit of an inconvenience, since I need to be getting ready to move, and I have work next week. But the thought of spending a couple nights in a completely undamaged building, in a place that is feeling fewer aftershocks, is kind of appealing.

Water is still at half the usual pressure, because they are still checking for and repairing leaks all over town. The pipes in my apartment seem to be OK. If there is a leak, it’s in a place where I can’t see or hear it.

I took a shower this morning. I was a little nervous about it, because that’s kind of an inconvenient situation to be in if an earthquake occurs. But nothing happened.

Cars waiting in line to buy gas

Cars waiting in line to buy gas

I did my laundry too. I had started wearing the same set of clothes two days in a row because I didn’t know how long it would be before I could wash them. Fortunately I did a load last Friday morning, before the earthquake. Today I hauled everything over to the laundromat so I could do both washing and drying. There’s no dryer in my apartment, and I wanted to have everything dry and ready to go in case I need to evacuate.

Another gas station got a delivery today, so like yesterday, there was a long line of cars. Delivery trucks stopped at a couple of the convenience stores and one of the drug stores today. Things were selling pretty quickly. In fact, at the drugstore they didn’t even bother to put the items on the shelves. They just opened the boxes and set them out in the aisles.

Right now, it’s possible to buy snack foods like potato chips and candy (but the selection is limited), condiments like ketchup and soy sauce, rice (in huge bulk bags), and fresh fruits and vegetables. But no bread, no dairy products, no microwave foods, no frozen foods except for ice cream. Bottled drinks are difficult to find, too. For drinks in cans, the selection is pretty much limited to coffee and beer.

On Saturday the 19th, I was supposed to attend a dinner for the students at my kindergarten who would be moving on to first grade in April. Last year’s was a pretty formal affair – they rented a banquet hall, everyone wore suits, and they had special presentations, speeches, and music. This year’s dinner has been canceled because part of the ceiling at the banquet hall fell in during the earthquake. The outside of the building looks fine, but the inside is a mess.

All the schools have graduation ceremonies in March, with the new school year starting in April. This year, they’re doing their best to hold graduation ceremonies this month, but other events are canceled or postponed. Most of the schools around here have been closed all week, but they hope to reopen next week.

Damaged hospital

Damaged hospital. A week later, I noticed that the 1st floor medical clinic was open, but you have to use the side entrance because this main entrance is not safe.

On the news, I’ve seen reports of looting from heavily damaged houses and businesses in the tsunami areas while the owners are at evacuation centers. So now they’re starting to do volunteer patrols of those neighborhoods in order to prevent that. At some of the destroyed convenience stores, people have smashed the ATM machines open and taken the money that was in them. There don’t seem to be any gangs of looters or anything like that. It’s more like individuals sneaking in there at night and seeing what they can get away with.

By the way, up until tonight news is the only thing that’s been on TV, and it’s all about the same topic. News about the disaster, relief efforts, emergency shelters, list of stores that are open, school closings, messages from people trying to contact loved ones, locations for food and water distribution, where you can take a bath, ATM machines that are operating, road closures, bus and train information, scheduled blackouts, radiation levels, and more. Tonight, they started showing a few regular programs as a break from the news.

So far, my area hasn’t been included in the rolling blackouts. They’ve been mainly in and near Tokyo.

Sunken sidewalk

Either this sidewalk sank or the manhole entrance got pushed up. Maybe both. This sidewalk was smooth before the earthquake, but now it’s very uneven.

Parking lot crater

This store ended up with a big crater in the parking lot.

On the news, if you see pictures of Ishinomaki, Matsushima, or Namie, I’ve been there. The most heavily damaged town in Fukushima Prefecture is Minami Soma, which is just north of Namie. I have a student in Namie. We do lessons through Skype. She’s safe, but I don’t know if her house is still standing or not. It was about 2 or 3 kilometers from the ocean, but not on high ground.

During the winter break I went to the Mangattan museum in Ishinomaki. It’s on an island at the mouth of a river, just a couple blocks from the ocean. The museum has interactive exhibits, video rooms, and a library dedicated to the works of Shotaro Ishinomori, who holds the world record for the number of titles published by a comic book artist. I wonder if there’s anything left of it now.

I was woken up three times last night by aftershocks. I wonder how long it will be before I’ll feel like I can trust the ground again.

Ishinomaki December 2010 no1

Ishinomaki street December 2010

Ishinomaki December 2010 no2

Ishinomaki street December 2010

Me in Namie

Me on the beach in Namie

Above:
A couple street scenes from Ishinomaki during my visit on December 25, 2010, about two and a half months before the earthquake. These streets were turned to rubble by the tsunami.The first confirmed American victim of the disaster was an English teacher on the JET Programme, living in Ishinomaki.

Left:
Me on the beach in Namie, January 2010. Namie was also hit by the tsunami, but there aren’t many pictures of the damage because nobody is allowed in there right now due to radiation from the nuclear power plant, which is right next door. The entire town had to be evacuated.

Saturday March 19

I had a class today – an unplanned lesson for one of our elementary school students and his younger sister. They usually come on Saturday mornings, and even though our other classes are canceled, their father called and asked if we could have one for them today, since they’ve had a stressful week with all that’s happened, and they’ve been stuck in the house most of the time because of worries about radiation from the power plant. I didn’t have anything prepared, so we just played games and drew pictures, and I tried to get them to use English as much as possible. Of course they only had one thing on their minds. The boy was writing summaries on the whiteboard about our “week from hell.” His four year old sister was OK most of the time playing games or drawing pictures, but three or four times during the hour she would say “I’m scared. I want to go home.” Still, I think they enjoyed the chance to get out of the house and do something different. We might do another lesson for them next Saturday.

Due to continuing worries about the nuclear power plant and other things, we’ve cancelled all of our classes for the rest of the month, with the exception of a few private students. So I’m off for most of next week too.

I haven’t asked about this yet, but I suspect that my school is only going to take in about half as much money as usual this month, which means that paying the teachers might be a bit of a challenge.

I got a phone call from my student in Namie. She was at home when the tsunami hit. She saw it coming toward her, and it stopped just 200 meters from her house. She evacuated right after that.

The Coop Mart supermarket is open, but they were not allowing customers into the store. I had a look in the doorway as I was walking past, and the inside looks just as bad as the outside. They were taking the merchandise that was salvageable and selling it out in the parking lot.

Coop Mart

Coop Mart

About half of the shops and restaurants are open now, but for very limited hours. Most of them close at 5 or 6. There are just a few that stay open in the evening.

I saw some people repairing the railroad tracks yesterday, so today I went over to the train station to see if they had any information about when the trains would start running again. The station was closed, but on the door they had a sheet listing the damage that had been done by the earthquake, and saying they are working hard on repairs, but they can’t say yet when they will be open for business again.

The Abukuma train line that runs through Hobara is about 70 kilometers long and has 24 stations. According to the notice, boarding platforms had crumbled in 23 places, there are 93 places where the rails were bent out of shape, 57 places where the electric poles and connections were damaged, and 8 damaged signal lights. If other lines had similar damage, that would explain why neither we nor any of the towns within a hundred kilometers have train service yet. With one exception. There is a short 10 km line running from downtown Fukushima City to the Iizaka hot spring resort. It was closed for 3 or 4 days but is now operating again.

Railway damage notice

Railway damage notice

Railroad workers

Railroad workers

My cell phone has an alarm which goes off when an earthquake warning is transmitted. I’m not sure how they decide which ones get alerts, since some of the strongest aftershocks didn’t have a warning. But when the system works it usually gives 10 to 20 seconds of warning before the shaking starts, and I’ve found that that’s enough time for me to calmly go out the door, down the stairs and out into the parking lot. So now, to avoid panic and possible injury, if I’m inside when the shaking starts I’ll stay there and wait it out. But if the alarm goes off, I’ll go outside.

Tonight the alarm went off, so I went outside. As I was standing out there looking down the street I could see and hear the shaking, clattering and banging approaching from the south, coming closer and closer. Then I felt the shock wave pass underneath me and heard the clattering from my own apartment complex. Then I heard it fading away as it raced on toward the north. All in the space of a few seconds. Weird, but very interesting.

Sunday March 20

I think I’m getting used to the aftershocks. They don’t bother me like they used to. But just when I start to think I’m safe I remember the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake, which had an aftershock six months later that did more damage than the main earthquake.

At one of the shops in town, they have a notice by the cash register announcing that they’re collecting donations to help the victims of the Christchurch earthquake. The date on that notice is March 11. Kind of ironic.

Monday March 21 and beyond

Damaged building

Damaged building

Damaged building 2

Damaged building

Damaged building 3

Damaged building

Building codes in Japan are very strict and the buildings are designed to offer protection in a strong earthquake. They can bend and sway quite a bit without collapsing. In this earthquake, even in the areas that had the heaviest shaking, most of the modern buildings got through it with little more than cracks in the masonry. The buildings are still safe and usable.

The building in these pictures didn’t fare so well. If you look closely, you can see that part of the top floor is missing, one outside wall looks like it’s come loose, many windows are broken, and part of the ceiling fell down.

I can’t help wondering, if the earthquake we had in Hobara were to happen in the central U.S. where the buildings aren’t designed to handle that kind of stress, what would the result be? Something like this building, or worse? Would most buildings just collapse?

In my apartment the earthquake was strong enough to move heavy furniture, make a bookcase bounce, and cause the water to slosh out of the toilet bowl and onto the floor. And yet, the building is still safe and usable, and there was no damage to the water pipes or the gas lines. Amazing.

Park pathway

Damage to a walkway at the Hobara sports park

Not much has changed in the last few days. We’re still getting aftershocks, I still wake up a couple times each night from shaking, we still have a lot of helicopters flying overhead. The stores still have a lot of empty shelves, and it is difficult to buy gasoline. Bread and dairy products are hard to find too. But we still have plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

At the Coop Mart they have started letting customers into a small section of the store. Going in there is a very odd experience. The lighting is kind of dim and beyond the barriers, you can see large sections of the ceiling hanging down and in some places touching the floor. The cashier section was damaged, so they’re using calculators to ring people up. Most of the items for sale are not on shelves, but have just been piled into boxes on the floor. It’s sort of a haunted warehouse type of atmosphere.

There are still no trains, except for the one mentioned above. The JR trains (including the bullet train) from Tokyo stop about 100km south of here, and then resume about 200km to the north. But in the 300 km stretch in between – nothing. From the pictures I’ve seen, the tracks were pretty badly damaged and it’s going to take some time to repair them.

They’re starting to reopen the roads to the tsunami areas, but I don’t think they want people going there unless they either live there or are helping to rebuild.

So what do we have here? We have all-natural vibrating massages from the ground, and glow-in-the-dark vegetables. The sale of vegetables and milk from certain areas has been banned, but so far the contamination isn’t all that bad. You’d have to eat and drink a huge amount over the next year to have any serious health risks. But, better safe than sorry.

It’s going to be a while before things are completely back to normal, but we’re making progress.

Anyone know where I can buy a Geiger counter?

Go back to part 3

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Written by hobara09

2011-03-26 at 5:59 pm