Surviving An Earthquake

I was going to wait for things to “calm down” before posting my Earthquake Survival Story, but things are resolutely refusing to calm down and besides, if I waited until all the tension had abated, would it still get the necessary overtones of rattledness that it is import to convey? Probably not.

The thing is, surviving an earthquake is easy. Surviving the aftermath of an earthquake is much harder.

Friday 11th March was never going to be a completely ordinary day for me. New Baby, being still Very New and only as old as the month itself, meant that I had been off work for the past few days learning what an amazing rainbow of different colours poo could have and what the true meaning of broken sleep is. It was brilliant – I was on cloud nine.

So I was going into work for the afternoon only on Friday for a few reasons:

  1. Paternity Leave of three whole days already consumed.
  2. Actual holiday time wants conserving for trips to see Granny and Grand Dad in Scotland at Christmas time.
  3. I genuinely had a backlog of stuff I had to get fixed and other projects that needed nudged to stay on track
  4. One of the Big Bosses was in town for a company event.
  5. That meant a free piss-up I could plausibly claim to the wife I had to attend to show face.

So the office was quiet with most of the staff at the big event, only two other Engineers, S and Y, and F who works on localization of some of our stuff in. Y had been off for a few days since just before the arrival of New Baby and we had just got caught up on mutual events and sorted through the heap of stuff we needed to get done between us when his phone rang, so I turned back to the computer and opened my task list to plan what I was going to do first.

We are on the sixth floor of a seven floor building (in American counting, with no zero) so we are used to feeling every minor tremor. Minor tremors happen a lot in Tokyo, old hands and natives are so used to them that they can function completely normally through most of them without breaking stride. Personally though, every single one of them freaks me out a bit, my eyes automatically dart around to check if I’m near anything tall and heavy then over to a picture or clock on a wall to see if I can see it swaying (and thus decide if it’s just my imagination, as occasionally happens, or a real tremor). I believe I get a sort of startled rabbit look about me when this happens which my colleagues, completely good naturedly, find a little funny.

There was a little tremor. In my usual seat, I know where all the nearby heavy stuff is so my eyes go straight to the clock on the wall that is showing 14:46 and swaying a lot. It’s a strong one. Y went right on talking on the phone without a breath.

And here is where the story properly begins, because normally at this point in the anecdote someone makes a funny comment as the shaking stops, people may or may not laugh at my startled rabbit expression and office life will go on for the rest of day, safe in the knowledge that there will be something to discuss over a beer later.

The shaking didn’t stop. It got stronger. The clock started bouncing around and bashing against the wall in a crazy beat, the windows and partition walls rattled and creaked. Y beside me went right on talking, but across the partition I caught S’s eye and saw the startled rabbit expression on his face. In that moment of silent communication, we both got off our seats and climbed under our desks.

Normally at this point in the anecdote, the shaking stops and everyone will laugh it off as a strong tremor and try to guess the intensity number before someone finds it on a website (which is also a race). Indeed Y, on the phone, was laughing – I’m not sure if it was at me climbing under the desk or something the other party had said.

The shaking didn’t stop. It got stronger. I noticed my knuckles were white with their grip on the leg of the heavy desk. The floor was shaking and shunting hard, first one way and then the other. Things were crashing off of shelves onto the floor… one of my colleagues was shouting something I couldn’t understand completely but was along the lines of “Fucking hell! Wont it fucking stop already!?”. No one was laughing.

There are no previous anecdotes that I could tell you that might explain what normally happens next. We are in deep, uncharted water. From here on in, it is the aftermath.

The shaking didn’t stop. It got stronger. It is at this point that you realise that you are in a Big One. You realise that people are going to be dead when this finishes. You realise that you might be one of them. Just how earthquake-proof can you make a building? It is shaking like it’s on one of those sadistic fairground rides with “Scream if You Want to go Faster!” painted in bright jagged letters with flashing lights but far less controlled.

You are not in control of your destiny at all in this moment. No one is. The building will either collapse and crush you to death, or it wont.

The building you left your wife and new baby in two hours ago, leaving them alone together for the first time since they were discharged from the clinic less than a week ago, will either collapse and crush them to death, or it wont.

These are extraordinarily hard thing to process as you are cowering under a desk.

It is impossible to know where to put your fear.

All you can do is hope that it will stop soon and that you and everyone you love will be allowed to live.

The shaking didn’t stop. It got stronger. Brains do weird things at times like this. I remember thinking “Shit, it’s the Tokai quake. I wonder what it’ll be like to fall as the building collapses around me? What will it be like to be crushed?” I saw it, in my minds eye, that very scenario – the floor tore apart and Jamie’s body tumbled away from me down into a mess of concrete.

I can not tell you how long this went on, I genuinely don’t remember. Probably less than a minute or something. You never want to have a minute as long as that one.

And then it got a little less. And then it got lot less. And then it was just a gentle sway and we picked ourselves out from under the desks wondering if we’d survived or not.

The office is wrecked. There is paper, monitors, binders, PCs, potted plants, books, bins, trash and glass/perspex “well done employee” trophies where the floor used to be. An ominous crunch sound comes from the comms room.

After a brief round of “You OK?” / “Yeah, you?” we checked the internet and found the epicenter was Sendai. We all realised at the same time that the only other one of our in Japan colleagues not here or at the other event was in Sendai. Next we rush to windows to see the scene on the streets – if the other buildings look physically badly damaged ours might be as well. Many of the other buildings are still swaying as if a gentle breeze was washing through them but none of them look like they have suffered any kind of collapse. The streets are filled with people, but no debris or corpses.

We found later in the day that the colleague in Sendai was OK and he has since safely made it back to Tokyo after a most arduous adventure.

Someone opens the comms room door to reveal a scene of computer carnage that would make the most stout-hearted sys-admin cry. They make to step inside and I tell them to stay the hell out, if there’s a big aftershock you could get killed in there! They shut the door. In the movies, there would be a dramatic aftershock at this point to nail the point home. It turns out that Mother Nature has watched a couple; there is a dramatic aftershock at exactly this point and no one wastes time getting under a desk. That aftershock would have been the strongest earthquake I had ever felt to date in Japan.

Another brief round of “You OK?” / “Yeah, you?” later and we set about nailing open the doors and trying to contact other colleagues and family members. It should have occurred to me now to also kill the power to the comms room. It didn’t. Luckily it occurred to another colleague arriving back from the (prematurely cancelled) big event an hour later.

Of course the phones don’t work – a moment’s thought and we realise that we know that emergency services get the bandwidth first. I decide that the internet is the way forward and leap to my PC to email my wife only to discover that it is a casualty of the quake – the lights are on, but no one is home. A stream of the bluest air any mortal has ever heard in my presence hit that poor machine as I cursed it and the silicon that crafted it. I needed to talk to my wife. Now. Didn’t it understand that?

S’s machine must be working, he’d been able to look up the epicentre, so I borrowed it to fire off mail to her phone and GMail.

“I hope they’re alright.” I muttered aloud. You may not know the true depth of meaning and feeling in the emotion called sincerity. I know it. The second dramatic aftershock arrived on queue.

Of the four of us, I was certainly the luckiest in terms of getting home – I am quite close, just an hour on foot or twenty minutes on my bike (which I had accursedly decided not to use that day because I thought I was going to have a couple of drinks later!). Y and S are not married men with families. Poor F has family, both these and her home were much further away, she decided to wait till the others were leaving as they would be heading in the same direction.

I packed up the broken laptop (which miraculously worked again the next day), wished my colleagues good luck and promised them I’d update them later and bolted down the outside back stairs. Two floors down, the smokers in that office pointed out some chips of brick that had come out of the wall. I hit the ground floor at a brisk walk and start the journey home.

The streets of Yotsuya and Shinjuku are filled with people. There is almost no traffic. People are standing so close together they are physically touching, even though there is plenty of space. That alone is enough to tell you how traumatic this has been in a country where the hand shake is replaced with the bow. Not many people are moving yet, I guess they are waiting to see what their companies tell them to do: go to refuge area or go home or (in some cases) go back to work.

You could not have dragged me to a refuge centre. I need to be home. Now. I pick up the pace as I come through the centre of Shinjuku. An aftershock stops me in my tracks and I watch the buildings sway like reeds again. I am now walking at maximum speed.

It is less than twenty minutes after the quake when my phone beeps. It is the email from my wife telling me they are OK. I stop on the street and try not to weep. With shaking hands I reply again and then update Facebook that we are all safe.

I pass Shinjuku station where there are crowds gathered, watching events unfold on the giant East Exit screen. I barely slow down. The rest of the journey passes in a blur of churning emotions. Although I have seen not a single obviously damaged building, I am hugely relieved to see that ours is standing. I get up the stairs and burst into our apartment and into the arms of my wife and daughter.

And then surviving started getting harder.

First as we realised that we had been really fortunate and that the scale of the disaster unfolding in the North East was tragic beyond measure. Every image and story that slowly started to emerge tore holes in the heart.

Second, every aftershock, which came one every couple of minutes sometimes leaving the building moving for a few minutes like a huge ship on the swell, frayed a little of the nerves. New Baby obviously felt the tension and became constantly restless.

And then the difficulties at the Fukushima plants began to unfold. I know more than the average layman about this subject – I’ve studied a bit of physics and read quite a bit about nuclear power generation and safety and also about Chernobyl. My initial analysis of the situation was therefore that it was basically under control and controllable. From the information that was then available at the time, I dont think I was wrong to make that assessment. The actual evidence of course did not stop a massive amount of sensational reporting about how people in Tokyo and then North America would be horribly annihilated because of the meltdown of doom. This is still, I hope, far over-hyped from the actual amount of risk to health.

Then it just kept getting worse. For every move forward, there seemed to be two more catastrophes. And still it was always still going to be fine, as long as the containment vessels remained intact. The steam discharges from the water cooling going on, while radioactive, would never be harmful outside the 3km exclusion zone. There might be more minor discharges like that but in many ways all they had to do was simple – keep the cores cooled by water for fifteen days till they become sufficiently inert to no longer be able to melt.

Everything is against them though. Fires, explosions, failed valves. And the final clincher – that the containment vessel for #2 at least was probably not completely intact. What has become more clear over time is that the situation at the plant is significantly more difficult than was at first revealed. This morning I have again awoken to more bad news – potential criticality in unit 4. They’ll want to put some boron on that.

This still does not mean that I think we will all be irradiated and die! The situation at Fukushima (150 miles from Tokyo) is very similar to the Three Mile Island accident (100 miles from NYC) and as we should all know by now, there were no long term consequences in NYC nor anywhere else in the US after TMI beyond a 15 km radius of the plant. The Japanese exclusion zone remains sufficient, for now.

The previous advice from the UK FCO was completely sensible and Chief Scientific Officer Professor John Beddington comments were illuminating and completely correct as far as anyone could see. If you haven’t already seen the condensed summary of his recent call to the embassy, please do.

The only slight quibble I had with that summary is that I don’t think wind direction is so irrelevant, but as luck would have it, Nature is on our side for this and is blowing it out to sea, not towards Tokyo.

But as of a few moments ago, the UK has updated it’s advice based on the new situation:

The most recent advice from the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser remains that for those outside the exclusion zone set up by the Japanese authorities there is no real human health issue that people should be concerned about. This advice is kept under constant review. However, due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area.

The UK’s worse case scenario (a complete meltdown of one or two of the reactors) will still not cause any danger more than 50km away. Beyond that there will doubtless be a rise in radiation levels but this will not exceed safe levels, even if the wind does turn to Tokyo that will still be the case – no damaging levels of radiation.

It has been tiring, fighting an uphill battle to keep this message afloat amidst the sensationalism. What has made it worse is the constant and disheartening lack of information coming from the site, a void that is filled by wild speculation and doom-saying. And of course, because my (and other level headed, evidence based) advice about this has had to change so dramatically, and even though it is still overall still pretty safe, it makes the doom-sayers seem more right. It will all come out in the wash of course, but if the probability of reaching this stage was understood at the start of the problems we could have done an even better job of trying to keep people informed.

For this to all still come out all OK, without a serious discharge, they need to keep all the fuel cooled with water for another ten days. There are lots of reasons to think that this is completely achievable – if they can get enough reliable power to keep the pumps running and nothing further goes seriously wrong (like another big earthquake or tsunami or explosion or fire) that’ll be the case. They are running a new power line to the plant and sending more generators, if these get there then it can still be brought under control.

Given the state of the place though, I feel a bit bleak that this will be achievable which makes the UK FCO’s “worst case” scenario seem increasingly likely. There are credible reports that the spent fuel pool at #4 already has an uncontrolled criticality and #5 and #6 also now carry definite warnings that their fuel pool temperatures are rising. All of thee things mean temperature rises and that leads to fuel melt and that leads to radiation release.

Plenty of folks are already leaving town, either south or East in Japan or abroad for a few days. It is an agonizing decision for anyone considering it. You feel like a turn coat or traitor and some of the sentiments from other people who are definitely sticking it out have not been kind. Abandoning Tokyo, a place you love, your home and your friends is a gut wrenching thing to do.

So, am I going to practice what I preach?

No. I’m not. We’re going to take a holiday to Singapore for a few days.

I believe that, the situation is extremely serious and may well be reaching the worst case scenarios that on previous evidence seemed almost impossible. Radiation levels in Tokyo will probably rise but should stay within safe levels. Closer to the plant there is a much greater risk of course. At time of publishing, no where outside the evacuation area is in any danger from elevated radiation levels.

We will none-the-less almost certainly be exposed to more cosmic radiation in the plane than if we had stayed in Tokyo.

So why go? Too much trauma. We’re not surviving the aftermath very well, not because we’ve been the victims of the horrors further north and not because of fears of radiation and certainly not because there is any supply shortage. It’s the wear on the nerves from the aftershocks that is huge, it reminds you of the quake itself, every time. You snatch up the New Baby and wonder if this is another Big One and will you need to bolt for the door.

But it would be foolish to pretend that I haven’t also succumbed to the paranoia about the Fukushima situation.

While I can rationalize it all very well (it’s an over reaction and the risk does not justify that response), the presence of New Baby ratchets up the caution glands. So we’re leaving Tokyo for a week, it’s the irrational thing to do.

I hope that when we come back, the worse cases wont have occurred, or if they have, than my assessment of the safety in that situation outside the current exclusion zone will have been correct and that Tokyo will forgive me for leaving her in an hour of crisis.

Lastly, if you have not yet donated to the disaster relief of the North, please, please do. Their earthquake stories are all much worse than mine. Their losses are unimaginably painful. Their suffering is continuing now. They have no way to escape from it.

13 Comments to Surviving An Earthquake

  1. Julie says:

    Jamie,

    It is the official decision of the quartet that you should get your ass out of there pronto and not wait to find out whether or not they are telling the truth about Fukushima. From the etymological point of view, you don’t want to be too near any place that sounds like a swear word, Phuket being another example. Seriously, please get somewhere safe. The best thing that you can do for Japan just now is to stay alive and go back to rebuild. You are no use to anyone staying where you are waiting for the next quake or meltdown. Keep safe and thinking of you.

  2. Theresa says:

    Jamie,

    Thank you for sharing this with us. Great article — your vivid description had me feeling like I was right there with you!

  3. Jenny says:

    I bet that was a difficult post to write- try not to feel guilty, your first priority is to your family. You feel raw enough after the arrival of your first baby without a huge National disaster happening around you- I remember watching my son’s chest going up and down most of the first few nights in case he stopped breathing when I wasn’t watching him- your instinct to protect is overwhelming at this point.

  4. Patricia says:

    Thanks for your report – it is heartbreaking.
    All good wishes for you, your wife and your child.

  5. [...] It’s been almost a week since the initial Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Has it really already been six days? It feels like it just happened yesterday, and yet it feels like so much time has passed by. The “crisis” as some people have been calling it isn’t over. People are continuing their panic buying and hoarding, and there is a general shortage of basic food and supplies across Japan, especially in the northern areas. The nuclear plants in Fukushima are still having cooling problems, and the rest of the world, thanks to scaremongering and sensational news reporting, believes that this entire island nation – and somehow, America with it, are going to be “horribly annihilated because of the meltdown of doom”, as quoted by blogger Jamie Thom (Practical Useful). [...]

  6. Alison says:

    Hi Jamie, you probably won’t remember me but your mum is my Godmother (I’m Malcolm and Katrina Grant’s daughter).

    I’d recently heard the fabulous news about your new baby from your very proud mum and as soon as I heard of the quake my first thought was with you, your wife and new baby. I googled you and found your blog and I can’t tell you how glad we all are that you’re all okay! None of us could bare to ring your mum and dad just in case.

    So, belated congratulations on becoming a dad!

    Oh and brilliant blog :-)

    Take care,

    Alison

  7. Johanne says:

    Hi Jamie,

    Thank you so much for posting that, it’s not often we can get the real story from someone who’s actually living through such a major disaster.
    I’m just sooo glad that you, Nat & your beautiful baby girl are all ok. Please get yourselves somewhere safe, and take care of yourselves.
    Hope to see you all when you come over at Christmas.

  8. [...] friend Jamie is in Tokyo and was there when the quake hit. His first hand account of the quake is just scary. I’m so unbelievably glad that he, his wife and 2 week old baby are safe and [...]

  9. Paul says:

    Ultimately, when various embassies have put an official alert out for Tokyo, then there should be no need to justify yourself to internet trolls.

  10. Hi Jamie, here via Omar and I think my heart is still racing after reading your account.

    Stay safe. All of you. I think you’ve made the right decision.

  11. James McDowall says:

    Not quite as bad as the ”Earthquake” you’ve left your neighbours with behind you Jamie eh?Your ”Non Reply” to my last email just about says it all really.Not to worry,we’ll just go through the Legal Channels this end to remove your ”New” 1 Up ”Earthquakes”…The Pensioners bottom flat here are at their wits end.Never mind though,they can always find comfort in your Blog i suppose.