*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

My Belated Earthquake Story

Your experience may vary:
This story is exactly three weeks old, because it did not belong in the first reports which were about the dead, missing, hurt and bereaved.  My story has none of that, but it is worth telling for that reason.  It's worth telling, because my experience was the norm for those of us in Tokyo: Gaijin or Japanese.  Within Tokyo, the effects of the earthquake were no worse than the effects of one of the larger snowstorms in Toronto, my other home (alas).  What was the same?  Transportation was %$#@ed, and there were very few injured or dead.  Bear in mind that dozens of people can be killed in an Ontario snowstorm, because they do not stay off the roads.  As for Tohoku...  Their suffering is an entirely different order of magnitude.

How to evacuate:
The picture that I have borrowed shows exactly the biggest obstacle to reuniting with my family: the trains were stopped for safety reasons, and stayed stopped for more than twelve hours while they checked the tracks for damage.  I was fortunate to be working only twelve kilometres from home, which took me two and a half hours to cover on foot.  Add 'evacuation' to the list of reasons to stay in shape.  Though a static picture, it's clear that pedestrians can move, but cars cannot; bicycles and motorbikes could move too.  The American movies "The Day After" and "Deep Impact" got it right: staying with your car will get you killed, or at best waste your time.  If you do not believe me, watch this video.  She survives, but by outrageous luck.  Many did not.

Where were you, when...?
I had just finished my classes for the day, and was alone in a classroom on the third floor of the newest building in an international school, not far from the centre of Tokyo.  I have to say, I want to know who designed and built that building, because not only was there no damage, the first and bigger of the two large quakes did not feel especially worse than so many others (only longer), and just a few items fell to the floor.  I cannot tell you the school, only because I like to keep my own identity hidden.  Sorry.

That was an unusually blasé experience.  My wife and infant child were in our eighth floor apartment, and though there was no structural damage, she and items in the building were thrown up to tens of centimetres in every direction.  We lost little more than some crockery.  Not to mention that I knew something was wrong when I could see the Showa era gymnasium across campus swaying at least a metre off plumb.  Within a minute there was an announcement in English that there had been an earthquake (a forgivable idiocy, just as people stating the visible weather: "What a nice day!").  Fulfilling my responsibilities, I found my students where they were in another class, sternly calmed them down, and got them to the playground in a relatively orderly fashion, like every other staff member.

Lessons from the building evacuation:
As I mentioned in a previous post, there is no evacuation plan that does not need to leave room for intelligent improvisation.  We did not face death or injury, but even our school learned this.

The students and staff lined up where they had practised to do so.  Attendance was quickly taken (I remembered to take my register!), absent students accounted for, and the results passed on to the administration.  Then the second quake hit.  It was not so large as the first, and there was nothing to fall on us, except the buses!  Many of the elementary grades were lined up in their usual spot for drills.  What nobody had accounted for, including myself, is that the buses could be a hazard.  They were.  Though they did not fall over, they did rock side-to-side more than twenty-five degrees off plumb.  We had to simultaneously move a hundred students while not letting panic take hold.  To the kids' credit, it worked.  Won't be lining up there anymore.

Something not well enough accounted for in a building evacuation, whether for a N.American fire drill or a Japanese earthquake drill, or either of the 'real thing', is the outside weather.  I caught quite a cold that afternoon because I did not have a coat, and the temperature was not more than 10C.  Now I am a 180lb man.  You can imagine how cold elementary students were.  I will make a point in future to try to have all administrations include grabbing jackets in their evacuation plans, as it takes so little time, and will provide so much comfort.  I do not think grabbing them and carrying them outside will slow the students down.  Changing footwear is out of the question.  In the end we had to allow staff member to go back into the buildings to fetch coats, and to bring the youngest students back inside the safest building to get them out of the weather.  We were also fortunate that it did not rain.  The solution to that?  Unless you plan to have provision for tents, you have to choose between the theoretical threat of damaged buildings, and the real threat of hypothermia.

I have mentioned in a previous how cell-phones did not work well, and we still had our infrastructure and power intact.  In this event and while watching 9/11, while I had two brothers who worked in Manhattan (both unharmed), I learned the next thing you want to do after securing your responsibilities and personal safety is to contact others who might be threatened.  We rely on modern technology to do this, and it fails worse when the stakes are higher.  I was able to text with my wife and discover that she, our baby, and her extended family were all fine and accounted for.  I lent my cell to help some others do the same.  No bad personal news.

"Come together"
Something like a quarter of people are irredeemable narcissists or sociopaths; the other 75% are not: the sick learn to be inconspicuous in stressful times.

Though the local supermarkets and convenience stores were quickly bought out of bread and groceries, this was not before many of the parents who had come to the school for their children had secured some of that to share among those on the school grounds.  I saw all of the adults wait until all of the children had something to eat before they thought of taking anything themselves.  None of the staff tried to leave in haste.  Even the substitute teachers stayed until more than half of the students had been reunited with a parent, though the VP encouraged them to leave sooner (students must be supervised until met by a parent or guardian in these events).  Some of the students' parents could not arrive until the following morning.  They were cared for all night by a core of teachers and administrators, de rigeur.

What did we know?
Much less than now.  Even now it is hard to remember the state of information that existed at the time.  TV and Internet was up, but the journalists had limited information to share.  I first knew this was a very big deal when I saw that video of the tsunami washing kilometres across the Sendai Plain, and saw video of smoke over Odaiba, about 18:30 of that evening.  I also heard that several trains in that area were gone.  That is all we knew that evening.  We knew that the north was the epicentre, that there must be thousands dead, that we'd been passed over, and that was all.

I did not need to stay overnight.  It was just like a movie.  There is not too much I need to add to the picture, except to say that other than the traffic, and the lack of groceries, the rest of the evening looked much like a normal Tokyo evening.  More than half of the restaurants were open, including izakaya, even some of them using charcoal grills during aftershocks...  I thought of getting a drink and a bite on the walk home, and would have if I did not have a family to return to.  I have friends who did drink on their way home.  There were many aftershocks, though much less threatening.  I felt them while walking, and I felt them while sleeping.  They still continue three weeks later, though less frequent and less strong over time ('knock knock').  I cannot imagine how an obese N.American public would have coped.  I suppose they would not have.  I did see some tired Japanese, and women in the wrong shoes for a march, but these are people with a culture of perseverance, and in far better shape than ours.  And they manage this while drinking and smoking more!

When I got home I was nothing more than tired and hungry, with one blister on my foot, because I had on a poor pair of socks.  The icing on the cake was that the elevators were disabled post quake, so I had to climb the last eight stories.  Perhaps the icing on the cake was that my mother-in-law had to stay with us two nights, as her trains home were not running, except my mother-in-law is nicer to me than my own wife.

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