March 18, 2011
Everyone knew ‘it’ was coming. Everyone was preparing for ‘it’. But alas, when ‘it’ really arrived no one was prepared. As you would have guessed by now, here ‘it’ refers to the major earthquake that struck northeastern Japan last Friday.
For years, scientists have been predicting a major earthquake in Japan such as occurs once a century. Accordingly, the central government and local governments have worked to prepare for the sudden catastrophe with mock evacuation drills in schools and offices. In fact, each school and company is expected to store enough food and water to last at least three days. In addition to the compulsory mock drills held twice a year, children and adults are taught how to survive with minimum items and facilities. Even the building code, with its very demanding standards, is strictly observed throughout Japan.
The disaster that struck Japan at 2.46 pm on Friday March 11, 2011, quickly developed into a three-phase disaster – first, the massive earthquake of 9.0 magnitude; second, the mighty tsunami towering as high as 15 meters; and third, the crippling of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The first and second phases: Earthquake and tsunami, nature’s fury
All the mock drills and predictions fell short when the massive earthquake that measured 9.0 on the richter scale hit Japan’s northeast region surrounding Sendai. Tremors lasting four minutes were felt throughout Japan. Even as people were first getting reports regarding the earthquake, tsunami warnings and calls for immediate evacuation were issued along the northeastern seashore.
But the mighty killer waves would not wait till the evacuation was over. Within minutes of the warning, the first tsunami waves as high as 10 meters hit the shores. People were caught unawares. Most of them did not even have enough time to run for their lives. People rushed to higher areas or rooftops to escape the ocean’s fury. Some made it, most did not.
"God did not even give us a chance to run for our lives," said Sumiko Oizumi, a devout Catholic from the Sendai diocese. "Thousands could have been saved if we had been given 15 minutes to flee. We were washing our plates after lunch when we felt the tremors. Then the tsunami warning came and the warning for immediate evacuation. Without even thinking, I ran to the hill behind our house with my husband," she recalls. Within minutes a three-story building near the shore was submerged. Meantime people began fleeing as water started swallowing up hundreds of cars, boats, and houses alike. "No one, nothing was spared," she sobs.
"I saw my neighbours being washed away like grass. We were not even given a chance to run for our lives." Sumiko says with tears in her eyes. Her town lost more than a thousand people, and another few thousands are still missing even five days after the tragedy. Fortunately for Sumiko, her husband and two sons and their family were able to escape the wrath of the sea. Today, Sumiko and her family are housed in one of the hundreds of shelters set up in the region.
Village after village, town after town was wiped off the map by Friday's wall of water. All those areas submerged under sea water are no longer habitable and the soil has become unsuitable for agriculture. The huge waves surged inland as far as 10 km, sweeping away buildings, cars and trees, and then retreated back out to sea leaving a trail of destruction.
"My only livelihood was through growing vegetables, and now I can no longer cultivate this land. All my fields are under water," says a farmer from Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture. The worst affected areas are Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate Prefectures. This is not an isolated story of one single farmer. Almost everyone has a similar story to narrate. "What next?" is the question that haunts them all.
At present, town officials are not able to keep count of the death toll. There is too much else to do. "Along the coast, everything is gone," said Mikio Komatsu, a financial official in Kesennuma, a heavily affected coastal city. "Everything was swept away. We’re not prioritizing body recovery. We need to clear the roads and get electricity and running water for the living. To keep the living alive is our main concern. As we do that, we’ll find the bodies."
The third phase: Nuclear plant failure, a man-made crisis
To make matters worse, Friday’s M-9 earthquake and tsunami disabled the cooling systems of the Fukushima reactors, leading to explosions of hydrogen gas and fears of reactor meltdowns. The government had earlier announced that radioactive substances had already leaked at reactor number 1 at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The amount of radiation reached around 1,000 times the normal level after the first reactor exploded on the second day.
In the following days, the nightmare continued as unexpected events occurred. The tsunami knocked out the backup diesel generators needed to cool down the nuclear fuel. Steam and pressure built up in the reactors as workers tried to cool the fuel rods, leading to controlled pressure releases through vents as well as uncontrollable explosions. Prime Minister Naoto Kan appealed for calm as he asked people (the government records show the figure as 140,000) living in the radius of up to 20 km to leave the area and requested those within 30 km to stay indoors.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, said radioactivity around the damaged nuclear reactors, located 250 km north of Tokyo, had reached dangerous levels. "We are talking now about radiation levels that can endanger human health," he said. The government declared a state of emergency in some parts of Japan. The prospect of a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima plant triggered panic even in Tokyo, with many residents deciding to leave the city.
Unconfirmed reports say a small amount of radiation, a minimal fraction, received in one chest X-ray, had been detected in Tokyo, triggering panic. The extent of the public health risk depends on how long people are exposed to elevated levels as well as how far and how fast radioactive materials spread, and whether the limited evacuation plan announced by the government is effective.
The Present of the Aftermath
Ever since Friday’s twin disasters, and then with the disabling of the nuclear plant, millions of people are struggling along the coast with little food or water. The chilly temperatures dropped further as a cold wave moved in. In northern Japan's disaster zone, it is estimated that half a million people are living in makeshift shelters or evacuation centers, often sleeping on the cold wooden floor of school gymnasiums. With snow and freezing temperatures forecast for the next several days, people find little warmth to instill in them some ray of hope.
Though so far the official death toll has hit 4,340, with another 9,083 people missing, by Thursday March 17, a week after the disaster, the terrible toll became clearer as it emerged that as many as 25,000 people could be dead after Ishinomaki officials confirmed that 10,000 of their citizens were missing. Ken Joseph, an associate professor at Chiba University, is in Ishinomaki with the Japan emergency team. He told the Evening Standard: "I think the death toll is going to be closer to 100,000 than 10,000." Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has ordered the mobilization of some 100,000 troops, the largest in Japan since World War II, to assist in rescue and relief work.
In extreme cases, four people have been sharing one slice of bread as increased food supplies are hindered by extreme road conditions and submerged airports. In most of the affected areas there are large numbers of sick and elderly people who cannot move on their own. They are the worst affected, without food, heaters, basic medicines, gas, clothing, potable water, toilet facilities, phones. In the evacuation areas or shelters, reports say there is an acute scarcity of basic medicines including saline drips or injections, nutritious food, clean water, winter clothing, etc. Children and mothers with children suffer from fever, throat infection, or colds. Though things are slowly settling down, the damage is beyond human imagination.
The affected areas have a large number of elderly citizens. Several have died due to roofs falling or being washed away by the waves, etc. As the tragedy struck in the afternoon just when most were resting or preparing for the afternoon tea, it was more difficult to escape from the sudden catastrophe.
In the evacuation areas or shelters, reports say there is an acute scarcity of basic medicines including saline drips or injections, nutritious food, potable water, winter clothing, etc. With temperatures falling below zero and snow or rain in many parts of northern Japan, people have no means to keep themselves warm. Children and mothers with small children suffer from fever, throat infection, or colds. The fear of rebuilding lives has added to the additional stress.
As electricity has failed in many parts of the affected areas, hospitals or shelters are concerned about the danger of many patients being disconnected from their life support system. That could cause serious problems.
Asia’s richest country has not seen such hardship since World War II. The Prime Minister described the crisis as Japan’s worst since 1945 as officials confirmed that four nuclear reactors were at risk of overheating, raising fears of an uncontrolled radiation leak. "The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis have been the biggest crisis Japan has faced in the 65 years since the end of World War II," Kan told a news conference soon after reports that the first of the nuclear reactors had failed. "We’re under scrutiny as to whether we, the Japanese people, can overcome this crisis," said the leader as he urged his fellow citizens to face the challenge with courage.
A late evening report on Wednesday revealed a cable leaked by WikiLeaks that Japan had been warned two years ago that its safety rules were not up to date and that a strong earthquake would pose a serious problem to its nuclear power stations. The Telegraph reported that an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official had pointed out in December 2008 that safety rules were out of date and strong earthquakes would pose a "serious problem" for nuclear stations. The cable continues to elaborate that the Japanese government then vowed that it would upgrade safety at all its nuclear plants, and in fact, it did build an emergency response center at the now stricken Fukushima plant that was designed to withstand an M-7 temblor.
The Future of the Crisis
By nature, the Japanese are no strangers to catastrophe – earthquakes, typhoons, floods and other natural disasters regularly batter this land. People have rebuilt their shattered lives from almost zero, after the human tragedy of World War II or after the two huge natural disasters, the 1923 Kanto (Tokyo-Yokohama) earthquake and the 1995 earthquake in Kobe.
Positively, after the earthquake and tsunami have affected the entire Japanese population, a strong sense of national solidarity is flourishing – as a nation, while Japan is saving food and energy, organizations and citizens are forwarding warm clothing, especially blankets for the affected areas. Everyone, Japanese or non-Japanese, is trying to spread the message of hope and generosity, and expressing gratitude for the support received from all corners of the world.
Japan has a high reputation for earthquake preparedness but was not prepared for a nuclear failure such as this. Time alone will show how well the Japanese cope with these events, relocate displaced people, and rebuild the future. For the present, they need whatever support they can be given for the great task that lies before them.
(Information and pictures courtesy: online news sites and albums)