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Witness to the Quake

By Yuki Hanyu | March 18, 2011

CREDIT: Save the Children (CC).

EARTHQUAKE RELIEF FUND: Please consider giving generously to Japan Society's earthquake and tsunami relief fund, which has already raised more than $1 million for the recovery effort.

Yuki Hanyu is a research scientist at Tohoku University in Sendai, a major city in northeast Japan. He was on-site when the biggest earthquake in modern Japanese history struck on March 11, 2011.

Hanyu wrote the following report the next day, summarizing his situation in the immediate aftermath of the quake and giving us a rare glimpse of what it was like to be at the center of the disaster. He was evacuated and reached Yokohama on March 16, when he secured an internet connection and filed this report.

I am writing this as things develop.

I was attending a symposium when the earthquake struck. The initial five seconds were moderate and people were saying, "Ah, a tremor." Someone’s phone was giving off an earthquake alarm. (In Japan, there is an early warning system which gives you information like, "5 seconds to quake in your area! Take cover!") The earthquake suddenly intensified so people started covering their heads under the tables, and it worsened to Intensity 6. The tables and people slid around.

Then the quake slightly weakened, but after another five seconds it intensified even more. Power went off-on and then completely off. A few ceiling mortar panels rained down on us. This continued for about a minute.

After we assumed that it was over, everyone rushed outside and regrouped (with difficulty). It was already clear that some research groups had suffered severe damage costing well over $5 million to their facilities. While the university authority counted people, I went online to social network sites on my mobile phone to report I was alive. Then my parents called me. I just reassured them and then hung up after 10 seconds because such "Are you OK?" calls overload the phone lines and affect those who seriously need to communicate.

As I flipped through online tweets, I saw that the situation was even more serious for some of my friends: They were hit by tsunami. One friend said that he was losing his home to the sea, and I still cannot contact him. In fact I have about ten friends in Ishinomaki, a city completely swept away by tsunami. At the moment, I cannot contact any of them at all as the phone networks are down. It remains too dangerous to get close to the city because the water is still there.

While aftershocks struck every five minutes, I ran to a Lawson convenience store but it was already packed with people panicked into buying food and drinks. I returned to my flat and assessed the situation.

Building: SAFE, probably
Room: UNSAFE, broken porcelains
Power: DOWN
Water: DOWN
Phone: DOWN
Television: DOWN
Food: 1–2 DAYS
Drinking water: 3 DAYS

I assumed I would be alright for the next day or two, so all I needed was information of "What on earth is going on." The traffic was all jammed and signals were not working in snowy weather. It was quickly getting dark, too. I took some rock-concert glow sticks and held them up to cross streets. The power was down for the entire city. All the convenience stores were being emptied out by panicked shoppers. My mobile phone stayed offline no matter how hard I tried, but when I looked up in the sky I could immediately see why: Only the bottom half of the telecom tower was there.

The only lights were those of cars. Streets normally busy with karaoke boxes and izakaya bars and restaurants were completely dark. There were people, but I could not see them at all. I heard the restless sirens of ambulances and fire brigades—it felt as though they had come out of a movie—while aftershocks struck every ten minutes. I decided to take refuge in the nearby Sendai Teishin Hospital because I thought they would have power and probably radio or TV as well. Bingo! A radio was in operation, and I came to know the full scale of the disaster: Magnitude 8.8 [now corrected to 9.0], Intensity 7, megatsunami, thousands of homes lost, petrochemical plants exploding, people were being killed even in Tokyo 360 km away.

My mobile phone was still not working. But would I sleep in this hospital lobby tonight? No. As long as I was there, I would consume critical resources such as water to wash hands, flush toilet, and so on. It would be better for me to be somewhere else.

I stayed in the lobby of the 77-Bank main office where food and water were distributed. They had radio and a TV set, too. There were so many aftershocks that I could not sleep. My repeated attempts to contact my friends in Osaka and Nagasaki were fruitless. I wanted to send them just one tiny SMS asking to post something on my Facebook wall, so that my brother could see it and report to our parents, but even that was not possible.

We heard more than 20 earthquake alerts that night. Every time it went off we covered our heads and grabbed onto something. We kept watching and listening to the news about the immense destruction and continuing crisis while experiencing the aftershocks. I realized that this was NOT the kind of disaster where you have one minute of shaky bad moments and then assess damage and start reconstruction. No it was not like that. It was a compound disaster of long duration—the main quake followed by tsunami and fire, followed by aftershock, another tsunami, another aftershock, new fire, more tsunami...

As I write this, at noon on March 12, tsunami and fire are still ongoing. I can see from here the massive black smoke cloud from fire at the Miyagino-Ward petrochemical plant.

At 6:00 in the morning [on March 12], I left the bank and walked back to my flat. It was already bright outside. I cleared the floor of dangerous items. Then I went to the futon and took a nap until around 10:00 a.m. when another Intensity 4 (medium-strong) aftershock woke me up.

Power has been restored, but the phone and water have not. Hopefully the emergency relief will arrive today at a nearby elementary school. At the moment my primary concern is to secure food, water, and means of communication. I am not clearing the mess in my room—it will just be screwed up by aftershocks anyway.

The Japan Society of New York set up an Earthquake Relief Fund, specifically designed to help the victims of the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. If you would like to make a tax-deductible contribution, fully and directly going to local organizations to help the victims, please visit their website.

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