Wednesday, March 16, 2011

from the top

On Friday, March 11, at 2:46pm, a category-9 earthquake struck 17 miles off the coast of Honshu 240 miles northeast of Tokyo. About 10-15 minutes later, a tsunami slammed the northeast coast, wiping out several towns and villages in the Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. People, planes, cars and homes, everything just wiped out and washed away, lost in the surge. It was the strongest quake to hit Japan in the country's recorded history.

It hit Tokyo with a magnitude of 5 - not nearly as bad, but pretty terrifying. Or so I'm told. I was not there. I was out of the country. I missed it completely. Terrible timing. Or maybe excellent timing, depending on how you look at it.

As it turns out, my family did just fine without me. I was lucky. We were lucky. Tokyo was lucky. Because despite of the force of the thing, the big city we have been calling home for more than three years emerged virtually unscathed, with hardly any structural damage. There were scary eyewitness accounts of skyscrapers swaying like palm trees in a strong wind, and yet no buildings collapsed (the only report I saw was of a ceiling coming down inside a party hall in Odaiba). This story explains how Japan's strict building codes saved lives. As Terry says, when the quake struck, and he was on the 20-something floor of his office building in Hakozaki, in Chuo-ku, he thought to himself, "It's not normal for a building to sway like this." It was unnerving, he says, all the bumping and shaking that was going on, and with the office ladies crying. He says he half-expected one side of his building to be sheered off. And then it wasn't.

I wasn't able to really talk to the kids about the experience until three days later (they're not big on talking on the phone) and Terry didn't see them until several hours after it happened, so who knows how they were affected, really. From what I can tell, they were just fine, and still are fine. But here's what I know:

When the Big One hit on the Friday afternoon, the kids were still at school. Dylan was in the music room with his Year 4 class, and says a line of guitars and some drums fell over and the piano was shaking. "Like a nightmare" is how he describes it. Meanwhile, Conor was down the hall huddling under a table with his fellow Year 5s. He says he didn't feel anything at first, but then he did. "It was scary, but also kind of thrilling," he told me when I tried to "interview" him on the Monday following. "Can I watch TV now?"

The boys really couldn't say how long the quake itself lasted. Terry says "awhile." I read a few reports that say the duration was 3-5 minutes -- which sounds like ages to me. But in any case, when it finally stopped, the kids at school donned fireproof hoods (not helmets) and filed out onto the Showa campus's large running track-and-field, where they waited, seated on the artificial turf for parents to pick them up. "We weren't allowed to stand up," Conor says. I asked him if he remembers any of the other children being frightened. "Some were crying and holding onto the teachers' hands." (He sounded bewildered by this, if not entirely unsympathetic -- could he really be that unfazed?)

Because I was going to be away I had already arranged for my friend and next-door neighbor, Victoria, to collect the boys from school on the Friday afternoon, and apparently that went off without a hitch, with her Japanese driver/house manager, Saito-san, parking the car and collecting both my two boys and Victoria's son and taking them back to her house. Several other children had to wait until 7pm, 8pm, even 9pm or later for their parents to collect them, because it took them that long to travel from wherever they were to the campus, and no child was allowed to leave unaccompanied (many upper primary and secondary school students travel to/from school on their own under normal circumstances). The roads were jammed, trains and buses had stopped running and so it took hours to get anywhere.

"The kids were all so good on Friday and I was pleased I had them around me - it stopped me from going crazy," Victoria emailed me from the UK a few days later. When there was an aftershock, they each grabbed a pillow and ducked under the dining room table. Apparently the dog thought it was a brilliant game.

The kids were happily watching "The Simpsons" when my husband Terry arrived around 9 pm. He had been walking for a little more than 2 hrs, party to the orderly migration of salarymen (some of whom were wearing hardhats) that spilled beyond the sidewalks and into the streets, turning virtually every intersection in Nihonbashi, Ginza, Hibiya, Akasaka and Roppongi (all 'hoods along his route home) into a Shibuya Scramble x 10.

The mood out on the street was not all that somber, Terry says. "It reminded me more of the blackout [in New York in August 2004]: No communication, throngs of people walking, a bit of a party atmosphere. Everyone was safe and the buildings still stood. Not like 9/11."

I asked Terry if he was scared during the quake itself. "Yes, when it was going on, I thought, 'This is bad," he says. Like really bad turbulence on a jumbo jet. Much different than the gentle tremors we've experienced so many times before. It had to be bad for Japanese to look worried. And in the case of the men in Terry's office, some were white as a sheet, stricken, some of the secretaries crying or sniffling, trying to hold steady but clearly panicked. To lighten things up a little -- and maybe to keep himself from losing it -- he sat on his chair, grabbed the seat under him with both hands, lifted his feet and let the quake roll him back and forth across the floor. That got a few nervous laughs, he says.

So where was I during all this? With 7 friends in Cambodia, building houses for the Tabitha Foundation. We were working in a rural village about an hour outside Phnom Penh and had just started our lunch break. Laura's husband called us about 12:50pm local time, just after it hit (we were 2 hrs behind Tokyo), to tell us that there had been an earthquake, and that we might hear about it on the news, but not to worry. So of course we all started fretting. But ultimately we were all able to make contact with our husbands by emailing from our iphones -- data roaming, off! (can't wait to see that bill). Facebook also came in handy during those early stages, as no calls or texts were going through. Of course, FB would also become a problem, as a way of spreading misinformation and unloading complicated emotions. It was hard to ignore.

I think most of the other moms on the trip including myself agreed it was good the kids were at BST when it happened, because the folks there know better than any of us (or our husbands) how to deal with these kinds of situations. We didn't have to wait long before we were receiving emails from the school and were told that all was under control, with each child accounted for, etc. We were still pretty anxious, and felt a little guilty for not being there (at least we weren't in Shanghai on a shopping trip).

There was nothing to do but keep working. Before we left for the day, we managed to nail all the bamboo strips into all the floor studs in two more houses. Not sure our hearts were really in it anymore -- we were too preoccupied thinking about Japan and how our families were coping. Sadly, the purpose of our trip and the people we were helping were no longer front of mind.

After work it was back to the hotel and another round of nervous emailing, Facebooking and consuming way too much sensational TV news coverage. Those CNN anchors are the worst! Such inane comments. One noted that while there had been a run on the convenient stores, there had been "no reports of rioting." Rioting?! Ha! This is Japan, people. Even when disaster strikes, civility rules. BBC World was better.

Timely updates kept coming from Lowly Norgate, BST's Communications officer, and they were reassuring, but we were all starting to feel a little desperate to get home. Some of the husbands, not used to being on full-time kid duty even in the best of times, became engrossed with their jobs (some had more damage control to do than others) and children started sounding worried on the phone.

Anxiety is catching. So I pressed Terry about the boys' frame of mind.

One email exchange the day after the quake:

Me: how are boys- was Dylan worried? can you just hug and kiss them for me and tell them i wish i was home?

T: I'll do so right now. They were fine - a bracing boys' adventure! - but got a little worried at bedtime, although maybe just because they were tired.

The girls and I stayed in Phnom Penh for another 48 hours, leaving a day earlier than planned, but still finishing the job we had gone there to do. We even managed to fit in some sightseeing.

But soon we caught wind of the trouble at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant (explosions, radiation leaks, etc.), and were reading Facebook status updates from people saying they were leaving the country for the U.K., or France, or Hong Kong for a spell, until things settled down. School was canceled, first on the Monday that we would be landing in Narita, and then through the whole week. One by one the ladies traveling with me announced they would be heading elsewhere too. "Better safe than sorry" seemed to be the general sentiment among expats. "Staying is not worth the stress."

When Terry's company notified us that they would pay for the plane tickets, there was a day or two of waffling, and then we decided: I would take the boys to New York and Terry would follow if things really get bad. It would be easier for him to get outta Dodge if he's running solo.

Part of me wanted to stay to see how it all played out, maybe do some reporting. Part of me wanted to help with the relief effort. But the parent part is what ultimately put me on that plane out of Haneda on Wednesday morning.

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