Three years ago today. Friday. I was wasting time at home as final grades weren’t due until Saturday morning. I was in post-marking malaise and already pondering asking someone else to check my marks so that I didn’t have to go in. At 2:46 in the afternoon we started to feel the tremor. We’d felt a big one two days before and, well, there were always big ones happening and we’d grown fairly complacent. We even tried to guess the size before the official news report.
I felt it first, as I was sitting down. My wife was standing it didn’t feel it until the ceiling lamps started swinging. Unusually, it got stronger and didn’t stop. As everything began to rattle in our first floor apartment we decided to head outside.
Idiot me didn’t even think of taking a camera. Or, for that matter, an emergency kit (more on that later). The large tree near our building was rocking back and forth and we could hear it cracking. The cars in the parking lot were dancing. The tin roof of the bicycle shed was rattling. I felt dizzy and had to hold on to a sign to keep standing. At about three minutes one of our neighbors joined us. She’d been on the third floor.
I remembered that, about four years before, after a big earthquake in Niigata, our in-laws had sent us an emergency kit. I couldn’t remember where it was. Finally, after four minutes. It all stopped and we went in to watch the news. Then we started to get the aftershocks; one was strong enough to send us back outside.
We watched news about the tsunami and then about Fukushima Number One. Telephones and cellphones were down, although data plans were still usable. Even though the internet was working, email was having problems. Oddly, Facebook was working, but in strange ways. One of my friends was stuck at school. Her husband worked in Tokyo. Each could contact me via Facebook, but they couldn’t contact each other. He eventually walked the 13 miles to be with her and escort her back home.
Japanese tv stopped showing commercials and started running Ad Council PSAs instead. This was creepy, especially as the “AAAAAA CEEEEEEE” jingle got stuck in everyone’s heads. (The jingle was eventually pulled, too, although the spots kept running.)
The emperor, who usually remains silent while the government operates, went on television with a quiet, yet surprisingly powerful “don’t give up” speech.
We learned, eventually, that the quake had literally moved the Earth by shifting it 4-10 inches (10-25 centimeters) on its axis. It had also moved Japan’s main island, Honshu, eight feet (2.4 meters) East and dropped the coast around four feet (1.2 meters). The sound waves from the quake were detected by satellites in low orbit.
We then entered a phase where the government was denying what was happening in front of our eyes (explosions at Fukushima) and the big shots at TEPCO started citing, in mumbles no less, incomprehensible technical bullshit that pissed off even the docile Japanese press. The anti-nuclear industrial complex started screaming, and have been screaming ever since, about how we were all going to die; in fact, we were already dead. All of the above have since been discredited and it’s no joke to say we trust the thousands of people who now own Geiger counters (including a colleague of mine) more than we trust anyone in an official work uniform.
The Japanese became a lot less trusting of government. They also discovered the absurdity of having incompatible electrical systems in the same country (Western Japan in on a 60hz system; Eastern Japan is on 50hz.) Back in the day, when I visited my friends in Niigata, there was a crossover point where the lights suddenly went out for several seconds as the grids changed. (Yes, that’s right, incompatible power grids in the same COUNTY.)
As for us, we were about as lucky as people could get. Our apartment is apparently in a geologic sweet-spot that limited much of the shaking (which is why we didn’t feel it at first.) Not even a single book fell off a shelf. We had ways to get food, but only because some transportation was still working. We avoided the rolling blackouts and the worst that happened to me is I had to walk home seven miles from school when rolling blackouts shut down our train line for 10 hours.
The hardest part was the aftershocks, which lasted the rest of the year. It was impossible to relax. I remember my wife and I talking about that and me saying “Nothing is normal, right now. Nothing is normal.”
This video shows the larger quakes that occurred two days before and three days after. It’s worth watching it all, but the real action starts at 1:18 or so. I recommend watching it full screen, so you can see the date and time:
This video shows all quakes for the entire year. The real action starts at around 1:40. Note the line at the bottom that shows how rapidly the number of quakes increased.
Finally, this video shows the quake and tsunami as filmed by a number of survivors:
Now: The aftershocks ceased a long time ago and although we’ve been more diligent with our preps, we’ve started to slip back into complacency. I know where my emergency kits are now, though, and I carry one every time I go to Tokyo.
Last year, there was another tsunami warning, and the announcer didn’t mess around. He basically started shouting for people to get to high ground. His tone was “Do you remember 2011? Do you want to f&#%ing die?” which scared us, even though we live a long way from the ocean.
Only the oldest member of the Fukushima 50 has died, and that from esophageal cancer unlikely to have been caused by radiation exposure. (Thyroid cancer is more likely from radiation exposure.)
The government is still run by idiots who manage TEPCO in an idiotic way. Relief funds seem to have been spent everywhere EXCEPT the areas in need of relief funds. They’ve supported the whaling industry, Tokyo Sky Tree, fighter pilot training, wine and cheese events, turtle counting, and a contact lens factory.
Everyone thinks there was no looting after the quake and tsunami (there was) but the worst looting is happening now.
Note: Edited 3/11/2014 to add links to AC Japan videos.