Monday, April 4, 2011

Long overdue update – Disaster Observations

It’s been a while since I’ve updated, but I assure you that it had nothing to do with the recent disasters Japan has faced. I didn’t feel any shakes from the quake and even though I’m on an island, there were only minor wave swells here. I’m in the south of Japan, far from the epicenter of the quake, and not on the Pacific Ocean side. If you want to see some maps of where I’m at check out this post.

I’m sorry I did not get a post up sooner, but it took a while for me to get my thoughts in order (and then I was on vacation…). Here are few things I’ve noticed, from an outside-inside perspective (outside the disaster area, but inside the country).

When I got home from work the day of the earthquake and turned on the TV I was a little shocked to notice that the coverage was all that was playing on every channel. I guess this is just a sign of me still not being used to not having cable. I only have 6 channels. But in watching the coverage in the following days, I was sad that I couldn’t distract myself from the footage of all the destruction with something “normal.” Don’t get me wrong, the warnings and information that were being broadcast were very important and I’m glad that it was all so easily available, but I did miss the ability to turn on something else.

It was incredibly comforting when I found that one of the channels, run by NHK, was broadcasting the warning messages about the tsunami in English, Chinese, Korean, and Portuguese. Although I could understand from the graphic that my area was not one of those that needed to evacuate immediately, it was nice to hear everything clearly in my native language.

On Friday afternoon, when many stations were broadcasting live from areas still feeling aftershocks, many of the reporters were wearing hardhats while on air in case of a sudden tremor and falling debris. Several of these hardhats had the television station logo on them. I really doubt there are any television stations in America that have their own hardhats on hand for just such a situation. It made me realize just how much Japan stresses preparedness for natural disasters such as these.

Commercials returned to television on Monday. I thought it was odd that I hadn’t even noticed that they had been missing until they came back. So from Friday afternoon until some time Monday morning all channels were showing 24 hour news coverage of the events. On Tuesday some prime time programming returned, although about half of the stations opted to continue their continuous news coverage. It was certainly nice to again have options (beyond which horrifying footage of a tsunami swallowing a town to watch). Also convenient was that one of the stations that opted for news has a bilingual broadcast option for a few hours, allowing me to follow things much more easily.

At the height of the disaster we had almost half a million people living in shelters. That’s a staggering number of people, many of whom lost everything but the clothes they were wearing. In the following days I realized that my perception of the word “shelter” was totally different from the situation at hand. A shelter, of course, is a place you can go to for help and protection. However, when I think of a shelter, I think of a place stocked with supplies, a place built and prepared for the purpose of sheltering people, along the lines of a bomb shelter or a homeless shelter (or an animal shelter in the case of our furry friends). Obviously, there is no town that has a tsunami shelter built somewhere with supplies stockpiles for the whole town in case of a massive disaster. So they are staying in whatever building is safe and large enough to hold them. A huge number of survivors are staying at schools.

Let’s look at that point for a moment. Now that I think about it, a huge number of schools are built on high ground. This had never occurred to me before, but I have a feeling that, when constructing schools, many towns build them with this in mind. It makes sense, as schools are central areas in a community that pretty much everyone knows the location of. There are lots of rooms and a gym that many people can gather at. And in a disaster, the first thing you would want to know is if your children are safe. If the school is built as a shelter, parents would be able to have some peace of mind.

I have heard some stories of people who picked up their children after the initial quake to flee to different shelters, but were then caught up in the tsunami and separated. In some of those cases, if they had remained at school, they would have been safe. That being said, I have a feeling that school age children will have a higher survival rate than some other demographics in this disaster due to the fact that the quake hit in the middle of the school day. I’m sure it’s something that will be analyzed to improve evacuation policies in the future.

But back to the shelter situation. Think about your high school for a moment and the supplies that it had on hand. Schools in Japan are not much different. They simply don’t have a bunch of food, water, or medical supplies lying around. One of the hardest things in the aftermath of the devastation was trying to establish contact with all the shelters to get them supplies and information. Many areas were without electricity and couldn’t contact the outside world to let them know where they were and what they needed. And even after contact was establish, getting to the various locations was challenging. Not only were roads and train tracks wrecked, but there wasn’t enough gasoline in affected areas for trucks and ambulances. All of this on top of gathering the supplies in the first place and figuring out a distribution system to help as many people as possible.

Unlike America, most schools in Japan do not have central air or heating. In the north, where it gets very cold in the winter, the schools often rely on kerosene heaters to keep everyone warm at school. It’s the end of winter, so I’m sure many schools only had a small supply of kerosene on hand at the time. After the tsunami hit it snowed in many of the affected areas. So even if they had electricity, it was very difficult to keep everyone warm.

One of the most frightening things about the whole situation is that the area that was the most devastated by the tsunami was also probably the area of Japan that was most prepared for that type of disaster. They had regular tsunami drills and policies in place so that people knew what to do and where to go in case of a tsunami. But this was the biggest quake to hit Japan since records have been kept and one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world. There was simply no way to prepare for a disaster of this magnitude. Many people who followed the normal evacuation procedures simply weren’t able to get high enough to escape the massive waves.

I really have no idea how the American media (or any other country for that matter) is covering this event. But if you want to see the kind of thing I’m seeing on TV, check out this video which I actually watched on television. It’s astonishing how quickly that water rises. To see the extent of the damage, check out the link here. The bar in the middle of the photos is a slider that you can move back and forth to compare before and after shots. For my friends in Japan, or those who are studying Japanese and perhaps trying to follow the Japanese news reports, here is a list of useful vocabulary that someone compiled.

Now, I don’t want to leave everyone feeling too sad, so I do have some uplifting links to finish off. Here you can find a story of a tiny miracle amidst all the destruction. And if you have facebook you can take a look at these heartwarming posts made by people on twitter following the disaster. Both made me cry.

I really want to say thank you to everyone who thought and worried about me when they heard about the situation in Japan. My parents have reported fielding many phone calls from concerned friends and family, and even after I posted we were okay on facebook many people took the time to comment and say how glad they were that we were okay. It’s really nice to be know that you have been remembered and be reminded that you are loved. Please continue to keep those who were more directly affected in your thoughts and prayers. 

Things have been very routine here and school and work continue as normal. I can’t stress enough how normal things are here. We have had no shortage of supplies where I am, and we haven’t suffered from any power outages. Some people seem to think that Japan is very very small and that anything that happens here immediately affects everyone. So they may think that the entire country stands in ruins, and that those of us who didn’t lose everything are huddled in our homes in fear eating dust off the floor. I can assure you that this is not the case, and the majority of the country is functioning more or less as they did before any of this happened. This is not meant to downplay the devastation that was caused, but to offer a bit of perspective, and hopefully reassure anyone who is still worried about me.

As for the incident at the nuclear reactor, I can only assume that the media is having a field day with the event. Radiation is one of those magical words that makes everyone lose their minds. The situation at the plant is serious, because there are very hazardous materials involved. But unless you live very close to the reactor, it is not going to affect you directly. And that includes me and likely everyone who will read this blog. I got a higher dose of radiation making the flight to America from Japan than I have as a direct result of what is happening in Fukushima. There is pretty much zero chance of me being evacuated because of this. I don’t glow in the dark and we’re not all walking around in radiation suits. I’m sure the media is very selective about what images they show and this could lead to people thinking that Japan is one big ball of panicked radioactivity. If you are truly interested in the situation, I advise you to step away from the mainstream media and look to experts who understand the situation and are not trying to garner ratings.

Thanks for putting up with this incredibly long post.  Hopefully the next one will be on a lighter and happier topic.