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Archive for May 2011

East Japan Disaster – Two Months Later

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May 15, 2011. Two months have passed since the big earthquake/tsunami disaster.  Things continue to slowly return to normal, although the new “normal” is likely to be different from what it was before.

Unsafe notice

“Danger. Do not enter. Inspected March 24, 2011” This notice was on an apartment building in Hobara, just a couple blocks from mine.

I moved to Yonezawa on March 30.  It’s in Yamagata Prefecture, about an hour away from Fukushima.  (The move has nothing to do with the disaster.  It’s for work, and I’d been planning it since before the earthquake.)  I still go to Fukushima two days a week for classes. Yonezawa had very little damage from the earthquake, and had no interruptions to electricity, water, or phone service.  It has also escaped most of the radiation from the power plant, and is hosting a large number of refugees from Fukushima.

We’re still getting aftershocks, both in Fukushima and Yonezawa.  For the past couple weeks they’ve averaged about one a day, and they seem to be getting weaker as time goes by.  I’m still sleeping with my clothes on at night, just in case I need to get up and get out quickly.  When I go out of town, even if I’m planning to come back on the same day, I usually take a change of clothes and some food with me, just in case.  In April we had three earthquakes that were strong enough to cause travel problems.  After the biggest one, on April 7, the trains were stopped for three days and the expressway was closed for one day.  The other two only affected travel for about half a day.  So far the roads I’ve needed to drive on have been OK, but there are a few side roads that are still closed.  For a while, we were having to check the road conditions every day to see which ones were open.

I’d never stopped to think about how much the trains depend on the ground not moving very much.  Every time there’s a strong aftershock, the trains are stopped while they go out and inspect the tracks for damage.  We’ve had over four weeks without any interruptions now, so things are looking good.

Train service between Fukushima and Yonezawa was restored at the end of March, lasted about a week, then was stopped again for a few days with the April 7 earthquake.  Service between Fukushima and Sendai was restored a couple weeks later, and Hobara to Fukushima was finally restored on April 28.  By the end of May, they expect to have the trains running everywhere except for some of the most heavily damaged tsunami areas, and the restricted zone around the nuclear power plant.

Railway overpass

Here’s an example of why it took so long for train service to be restored. First, the concrete supports for the overpass have large cracks and have shifted out of place. Second, the ground has sunk under the tracks in places, leaving the track resting on nothing.

In Fukushima gasoline was difficult to buy until the first or second week of April.  Yonezawa was better, but still had occasional shortages.  My car had about 3/4 of a tank when the March 11 earthquake hit, and for the rest of the month I was being very careful to use as little as possible.  I wanted to be sure there was enough left to get me to Yonezawa when it was time to move.  When I arrived in Yonezawa on the 30th, one of the first things I did was to ask about buying gas.  The conversation went something like this.

“Are there any gas stations open right now?”

“Yes.  I think all of them are.”

“Really?  It’s possible to buy gas at this time of day?”

“Yes.”

“How long is the wait?”

“There’s usually no wait.”

“Are you sure?”

And so on.  It was a pleasant surprise, being able to just drive up to a gas station and buy gas immediately.  In Fukushima on a typical day, half of the gas stations would be closed, with signs saying “Sorry, no gas today,” while the ones that were open would have a line of cars stretching down the road as far as the eye could see.  They would stay open for maybe three or four hours, until they ran out.

Today, you can buy gas everywhere – no problem.

In grocery stores and convenience stores, we still see some empty shelves, especially in the drinks sections.  The selection of bottled drinks can vary quite a bit from one day to the next.  Today, store A might have cola, but no coffee, while store B might have tea and sports drinks only, but no cola.  Tomorrow – who knows?  I’ve heard that this is because, of the three factories that produce most of the plastic bottles for the drinks, one was damaged by the earthquake and another was affected by the rolling blackouts in the Tokyo area, so only about half as many bottles as usual were being produced.

At restaurants too, the menu can change from day to day, depending on what ingredients they are able to get.  Things seem to be almost back to normal now, but for most of March and April, on any given day, half of the items on the menu would be crossed out.  Even now, if you go to McDonald’s, for example, you will often see signs saying that, due to shortages of ingredients, items on the menu might not look exactly like the pictures.

You never stop to think about how much we depend on the regular shipment and delivery of goods, and how much we take it for granted.  Until something happens to interrupt it.

7-11 Store

7-11 convenience store in downtown Fukushima City. For several weeks after the earthquake they had their doors blocked partway open like this, with a cardboard sign in front saying they’re open for business. It’s difficult to see in this picture, but about half of the shelves inside are empty. At this time, half of the convenience stores in town were still shut down while the others, like this one, closed at 6 or 7 in the evening.

Can you guess what the big shortage is that people are talking about right now?  It’s tobacco.  At convenience stores, you see a lot of empty spaces in the cigarettes section, and some of them have set a limit of four packs per person.

Due to continuing problems at the nuclear power plant, the public schools in Fukushima Prefecture have decided on a radiation threshold.  That is, if the radiation level is 3 microseiverts per hour or higher, the students are not allowed to go outside.  On a typical day, this affects maybe 6 or 7 school districts.

People living within 20 km of the power plant have not been allowed to go home yet, and probably won’t for quite a while.  But there are plans to very carefully allow people in certain sections of the restricted area to go to their homes for a maximum of 2 hours, so they can lock up and put things in order.  In other news, two people were arrested for going into the restricted area and breaking into homes and helping themselves to the contents.

The disaster is still in the news every day.  Probably the most depressing story I’ve heard so far is of an elementary school located along a river about 5 kilometers from the coast.  It’s a low-lying area but still, five kilometers is pretty far.  It’s a two story building, and people thought they would be safe on the second floor.  But this tsunami was bigger than anything anyone had seen before, and the water went clear over the top of the building.  Before the earthquake, there were 108 students attending the school, and 13 teachers and staff.  Now, 74 of the students and 10 of the staff are either dead or missing.  That’s 70% and includes most of the people who were in the building at the time.  On the news after the tsunami, they showed a group of parents slogging their way through the mud surrounding the building, searching for the bodies of their kids.  One of the fathers that they interviewed said, “I don’t care how long it takes.  I’m going to keep looking until I find them.”

When I see stories like that I can’t help wondering – what was it like to be in that building when the tsunami hit?  What would you be thinking at the time?  Or would you have time to think about anything?  How long would it take for you to die, and what would it feel like?  Or what would it be like to be one of the survivors and lose 70% of your friends all at once?  Or even worse, to be one of the parents?

On a more encouraging note – there have been many stories about life at emergency shelters and refugee camps, in which people have gotten to know their neighbors much better than before, and have developed a strong sense of community and purpose, helping each other with everyday chores such as cooking and fetching water, or just sitting around the fire and chatting.  As one older woman said in an interview, “We have a good thing going here.  I hope we can continue it after we rebuild.”  Many young people who were wandering through life aimlessly before, now have a vision for the future and are excited about what they can do to rebuild their towns.

Closer to home, most of the damaged buildings have been inspected now, and some have notices taped to them – “Unsafe! Do not enter” on red paper, “Limited entry” on yellow paper, or “Inspected: Safe” on green paper.  Some cities used all three, but in Hobara and Fukushima, they only bothered to put notices on the dangerous buildings.

Hobara Elementary School has been declared unsafe for classes, so they are borrowing rooms at the junior high and other buildings.  Construction began on a new elementary school last year, and when they first announced the project, one of the reasons they gave was that the old one wasn’t as resistant to earthquakes as they’d like it to be.  It looks like they were right.

Hobara Elementary School entrance

Hobara Elementary School entrance. See the red “Unsafe!” notice on the door? Next to it is another notice saying “Risk of collapse – do not enter!”

Hobara Elementary School - side

Hobara Elementary School. The earthquake left some nasty-looking cracks in the side of the building, plus a few broken windows.

At the kindergarten that I visit on Tuesdays, they are not using the second floor classroom this year.  Not because of damage, but because some of the kids have been afraid to go up there since the earthquake.

If you’re wondering about the two girls who were in my class on March 11 when the earthquake hit, they have decided to come back for more, starting this month.  I’d heard that one of them didn’t want to come back because our school is on the second floor and she doesn’t like to go up to the second floor of buildings any more.  But they both seem to be OK with it now.  A couple weeks ago, during our first class since the earthquake, they were reminiscing about their experiences.

Here are some more photos from around Hobara and Fukushima City.

Underground walkway

Fukushima City – underground walkway with sign saying “Beware of aftershocks.”

Unsafe building - Fukushima

This convenience store is about two blocks from the downtown Fukushima school where I teach sometimes. The entire end of the block has been declared “unsafe,” and the building is covered with netting to catch any pieces that might fall off of it. Needless to say, the convenience store is closed.

Fukushima classroom

Classroom at our downtown Fukushima school after the earthquake. We had some things fall off of tables and shelves but overall, not too bad.

Crack in floor

Our Fukushima school is on the second floor. If you go up to the third floor of the building, you will find this crack going from ceiling to floor, and continuing across the floor to the other side of the hallway.

Fukushima - damaged street

Street damage in Fukushima. Would you believe that this street was still open to traffic? They were letting people drive on it, as long as they stayed away from the hole.

Bridge in Hobara

Bridge in Hobara. This bridge was open to traffic too, in spite of the fact that the sidewalk next to it had sunk as much as six inches in places.

Damaged building in Fukushima

Damaged building in Fukushima. I’m not sure, but I think it’s a pachinko parlor.

Broken snowy graveyard

Broken snowy graveyard in Hobara

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Written by hobara09

2011-05-23 at 3:11 pm