March 11th, 2011 was one of those days I will always remember vividly – just like 9/11. Fortunately, I’ve never been in the center of any major natural disaster, but living in Kanagawa Prefecture, a few hundred miles away from the epicenter of the magnitude 9 earthquake that shook northeast Honshu to its core, I was on the periphery of the largest disaster and crisis to hit Japan since WWII.
I was at work in the middle of the afternoon when the we felt the early rumblings of the earthquake. Normally, I wouldn’t have thought much about it since we have earthquakes all the time and it is normally not a big deal, but this time I knew this was different. It started off rather abruptly, but kept on going and going. After about a minute of shaking, I knew this was going to be big and began exiting the building. My office is about 3 stories high and made of concrete, so there was probably no issue of it withstanding a very large earthquake, but I just had a gut feeling I needed to get the heck out – so I did, as well as all of my colleagues. They say you should stay in the building and get under your desk, but that was just not the instinct we all had – also, the emergency exit was not far away, so most of us were out of there in 30 seconds. Once we were outside, the ground just kept moving under our feet and you could see the nervousness and concern in everyone’s eye. It’s one of those moments that will be tattooed in our memory forever. After about 5 minutes, the ground movement finally stopped – only to be followed by numerous large aftershocks. As soon as folks settled down a bit, everyone was on there cell phones trying to get in touch with their families to see if everything was okay. At this point, I’m sure the cell network was overwhelmed, since most folks could not call or e-mail any family or friends. Fortunately, everyone’s family was fine where I worked.
A few minutes later, someone told me that the earthquake was centered up north around Miyagi prefecture and some fires had broken out. At that point, we knew the quake must have been massive since Miyagi was hundreds of miles away and we had a just experienced the biggest earthquake in recent memory. However, nobody realized that within a short time period later, the worst was yet to come – a tsunami of unimaginable destruction.
Given the aftershocks and everyone being frazzled, the boss let everyone go home early. This was a good move, because even in Kanagawa Prefecture, where we only experienced a earthquake of about 6.0, it was chaos getting home. Much of the electric grid was down, trains stopped, traffic lights were not working and people were cleaning out the store shelves in anticipation of a food shortage. Since most of the Japanese depend upon public transportation to get to and from work, it was almost surreal to see such a orderly society in disarray. I live about 14 miles from work and take a bus to and from work. When I went to catch the bus to go home, they said it would be delayed and they didn’t know when it would be coming. Rather than waiting for the bus, I figured I’d take the train home, not knowing at the time the trains were all down. So when I arrived at the train station, it was darkened and the people working there were not allowing anyone in. I figured this is probably temporary, so I just started walking home figuring that I’d catch the train at the next station when the trains resumed. Well, they never did, and I ended up walking the full 14 miles home…and I wasn’t the only one walking home. The sidewalk was full of people walking home, never seen anything like it in my life. The electricity situation was weird because you would walk one block and they would have electricity and then the next two blocks had none. Also, some street signals were down and there were no police directing traffic, which was pure chaos. Cars were backed up for miles and miles. After walking for over 4 hours I finally got home, and the funny thing is, this was faster than it took people to drive home. The whole transit system was down in Tokyo as well and people were also walking home, some taking the entire night to finally reach their homes. I heard from a lot of folks that they just ended up sleeping in their offices.
Another odd thing was seeing the convenience store shelves being cleaned out. There were lines backed up 100 deep of people buying raman noodles and whatever else was edible. Halfway back on my walking journey back home, I was ravished, so I stopped in one convenient store and the only choice of food was chips and chocolates, but beggers can’t be choosers, so that was my dinner for the night after waiting in line for a half hour. It was an interesting experience to say the least.
When I did get home, I finally got an idea of how bad the situation really was up north. It made my heart sink to see the wonderful Japanese people having to deal with such devastation. Needless to say, it was a pretty sleepless night.
Amazingly, the next morning, when I drove to work, there was some semblance of normalcy. The streets were clear, the traffic lights were working and the trains were running. Although our area did experience some shortages in fuel, food, and electricity with rolling blackouts, it’s now been three weeks and all the shortages have pretty much gone away. Although the mood of the area is still subdued, life has returned back to normal. There was some inconvenience to put up with, but there is no room for whining when you see the devastation and trauma being experienced up north. If anything, we need to be grateful for what we do have and be as much help to the recovery efforts as we can.
The Japanese are really amazing people, very humble and strong. It is a culture like no other on earth and my respect for them has only grown stronger after seeing them deal with a situation that nobody could have ever predicted. Not only did they have a major earthquake followed by a huge tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people, but are currently dealing with a very serious situation with bringing stability to a severely damaged nuclear plant. There is a lot of criticism of the Japanese Government’s handling of the disaster, but now is not the time to have that forum. There will certainly be lessons learned that all countries will be able to learn from once things finally settle down, but what Japan needs most now is your support and prayers.
I will close this post by saying I am sympathetic toward the wonderful people of northeast Honshu and know God is with them. As unfortunate as this experience has been, it has made me more grateful for the life God has given me.
Please continue to keep Japan in your prayers.