Sunday, March 13, 2011

Massive earthquake and tsunami devastate northeastern Japan

On Friday, 11 March 2011, at 14:46 hrs, disaster struck Japan. One of the largest earthquakes on record struck just off the Pacific coast of the island nation. The shaking lasted for a full five minutes—a terrifyingly long time when one entirely loses orientation, may not be able to stand up, with everything falling down around you, walls and houses crumbling, the rumble of the earth drowning all other sounds—triggering a massive tsunami. Because the epicentre was so close to the coast, there was hardly any warning or time to evacuate. The first waves reached the Sanriku coast within ten minutes completely overrunning the towns and ports leaving total destruction in their wake.

The worst affected areas were in the northeast of the main island, Honshu. The prefectures of Miyagi and Iwate bore the brunt of the force. Iwate is the home area of my wife’s family where we have also planned to return eventually to live in the lovely valleys between forested mountains. It has been considered the most stable region of Japan, least at risk from earthquakes. There was no way to get in touch with relatives and friends as, of course, all communications were cut. Whatever communications infrastructure was left standing was immediately overstretched as millions of people tried to contact their loved ones. We were left helplessly glued to TV Japan that broadcast horrifying live footage from the disaster zones. Initial films were mostly from Tokyo with some footage shot from helicopters flying over the coast. The northern Tohoku region where Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori Prefectures are located was cut off the rest of the world.

Tohoku’s largest city, Sendai, situated on higher ground and away from the sea was largely spared from major damage. The city airport closer to the coast was not so lucky. Cameras from there showed the massive wave sweeping slowly across the runways. Large jet planes floated away like toy models. Aerial shots from the close by mountain areas showed huge liquefaction of the soil, again in slow motion, wiping away entire villages, houses crumbling and being washed down the slopes into the sea. The destruction there was complete.

The magnitude of the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami entirely overwhelmed all preparedness plans in Japan, probably the best prepared country in the world. The infrastructure was destroyed to such an extent that no rescue teams could reach the area. Places that we so well know were no more. Kesennuma, a major port city on the Sanriku coast in Miyagi, was gone. First the tsunami swept across the entire low lying valley. When it receded, fires that ensued as gas pipelines were destroyed finished the job burning down the entire old wooden town. Kesennuma had been the site of a large fishing port and the centre of the Pacific shark fisheries just because of the shape of its natural harbour. Now this same geographic advantage had provided the tsunami a perfect entrance to the harbour bowl allowing the water to rise unhindered into the city. A couple of years ago we spent some lovely time in Kesennuma enjoying its fabulous seafood. Yoko’s old high school geography teacher, Abe Take Sensei, took us to his favourite restaurant and was slightly upset with me for ordering simple grilled fish in this haven of amazing specialities from the sea. Abe Take Sensei himself ordered shark’s heart to accompany his beer. We all feasted on the weird looking sunfish from deep under the ocean. Now, none of these places would no longer be in existence.

Luckily, Yoko’s family resides mostly further inland, in and around Oshu-shi straight north from Sendai halfway to Morioka, the second largest city in Tohoku. Their towns—Mizusawa, Esashi Maesawa, Koromokawa—were at least out of the reach of the tsunami. Late on Friday afternoon when it was already night in Japan we finally received a brief text message from an aunt, Shigeyo. She had been in touch with Yoko’s mother Tomoko. Both elderly ladies were fine, but there was no electricity and no water. The entire area was in pitch darkness and it was cold. Snow was falling on the ravaged land. Nevertheless, it was a huge relief to hear from the family.

Another major worry, however, remained. Yoko’s 15 year old nephew Hiromichi and his mother Miho lived in Hakodate, a coastal city on the northern island of Hokkaido and there were reports about the tsunami having soaked the city.

I was scheduled to fly into Japan in the beginning of the coming week in connection with an Asian business trip, but I cancelled the trip. There was no sense in going and adding to the chaos and possibly hampering transportation of relief workers and supplies. Some economists were already calculating how such dedication of port facilities to relief needs would be blocking Japan’s exports. Other economists were estimating how the reconstruction that follows might actually provide a boost to Japanese manufacturing and economy. Economists are a different breed. No one was able to estimate the human death toll from the disaster, but there were reports of 200-300 bodies floating in the water on Miyagi coast, whom nobody was able to reach. But for the economists, there were more important and urgent calculations to be made.

On Saturday there was more live footage from Sanriku. Rikuzentakada, Ofunato, Kamaishi and other towns had been completely wiped out. It was impossible to imagine how one might even begin clearing the debris and start reconstruction. Only some sturdier concrete buildings stood amongst the rubble. Some lucky people had managed to reach their rooftops or run up the slopes to be saved only to observe the annihilation of their homes. Many old people didn’t make it. In Kamaishi there was a home for disabled children. It seems it was gone with the waves.

In January 1995, a strong earthquake hit the western Japanese port city of Kobe and its surroundings. It was the worst disaster in Japan for decades before that. I was then in Osaka, just some 80 kilometres from the worst affected areas. I was woken up in my small 10th floor hotel room in the early morning hours. The shaking was intense but much shorter and less powerful than this time. But it was the scariest moment that I had ever experienced—before or after. On the following day I managed to get to Kobe to observe the damage together with colleagues who were world’s leading earthquake experts. They were all shocked. Tsuneo Katayama, then earthquake engineering professor at Tokyo University and a top authority on the topic, estimated in the morning that several hundred people may have perished. In reality, the final count was more than 6,000 dead. The trust in Japanese engineering solutions and earthquake preparedness had bred complacency. It turned out to be mistaken, as large buildings pancaked, elevated expressways broke up and crashed, fires engulfed older neighbourhoods.

But the Great Hanshin Earthquake that destroyed Kobe was small compared with the current Miyagi-Iwate Earthquake. On Saturday night, the Japanese authorities adjusted the original estimates of the earthquake’s magnitude upward to 9.0 on the Richter scale, making it one of the most powerful events ever experienced anywhere. Furthermore, the Great Hanshin Earthquake was relatively concentrated in a limited geographical area. While this time the main epicentre was off the coast in the northeast, earthquakes erupted throughout a huge area some 500 km long and 200 km wide running in parallel of the Honshu coastline. Even in Tokyo, the shaking had been at the level of 7.0 Richter.

On Saturday we finally got through to Yoko’s mother. It was an incredible relief to hear my dear mother-in-law at the other end of a surprisingly clear phone line. True to her nature, Okaa-san (or mother as we call her) sounded upbeat. She too was very happy to talk to her daughter on the other side of the world. Somewhat against the odds, the rather flimsy home in Mizusawa was still standing and relatively undamaged.

As electricity and communications were slowly being restored, we managed to get in touch with the rest of the family. Everyone seemed to be accounted for. Miho told that the tsunami had completely soaked Hakodate with the streets flowing with 1-2 metres of water, cars and other loose items piling up in heaps where the waves threw them. But miraculously hardly any lives were lost. Akiko, a cousin who manages a Buddhist temple in Esashi after her late monk husband, reported that the graveyard on the slope had been destroyed, but that she was fine. So were the other cousins and relatives in Maesawa and Koromokawa. Akiko had slept the past two nights in her car. It was freezing.

Many other families were of course not so fortunate. Today, Sunday, there are still no firm figures on casualties, but it is likely that the death toll will exceed 10,000. Prime Minister Naoto Kan stated that this was the worst disaster Japan had faced since World War II. The National Broadcasting Company NHK is interviewing survivors. A man survived by swimming for almost 30 minutes in the freezing waters. His face was badly bruised and all his ribs were broken. An elderly woman had been riding in a car driven by her husband along the coast in Kamaishi when the tsunami hit. It lifted the tiny Japanese car 2 metres up a tree where it got stuck in a hook between branches, which saved her life. There she sat, soaked and frozen as snow was falling, until she was rescued and lifted up into a helicopter that transported her to a hospital. These were amongst the lucky people.

Then there is the issue of the nuclear power plants, which the resource-strapped Japan relies on for its energy needs. There were immediate reports that the coastal plant in Fukushima would become a radiation risk. Already on Friday, the government ordered an evacuation of people on a 3 kilometre radius from the plant. People within a 10 kilometre radius were supposed to stay inside and close the windows. That obviously assumed they still had some place to stay in. Also many people in the vicinity, especially old people, were not able to evacuate. On Saturday, there was an explosion in the plant and hundreds of people were exposed to radiation.

It further turned out that it was not only the Fukushima plant that was at risk. The Japanese nuclear plants—the best in the world and supposedly entirely secured against seismic risk—had not been prepared against quite this magnitude of an earthquake. A good friend of mine called from Vienna, Austria, where he works at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). I could hear he was upset with his engineer colleagues who had always underplayed any risks with nuclear energy. The problem is that nuclear plants, like other such systems, are designed to withstand incidents based on a calculation of historical risk. Cost-benefit calculations are made relating the investment needed to the likelihood of an incidence above a certain magnitude. How low the likelihood may ever be, when such an incident takes place, its impact is 100 percent.

As I write this, Tokyo Electric Power Company officials on TV are appealing to citizens to limit their electricity use, as facilities are not able to provide them sufficient current. This inconvenience pales in comparison with what may happen if the nuclear plants start blowing up.

Despite all this amazing damage and chaos, Japanese preparedness seems to be paying off and organizational effectiveness is facilitating early rescue and recovery efforts. Footage from centres where survivors have gathered shows people behaving calmly, keeping warm in groups around stoves, waiting in orderly lines to get water or reach a telephone that has been provided by the authorities. In Japan, people are self-disciplined and well educated. They do not riot or loot or start fighting with each other. One can only imagine what kind of consequences this kind of disaster could have in many other countries.

In the meantime, powerful aftershocks continue and the danger is far from over. According to the scientists, there is still a 70 percent probability for a 7.0 magnitude aftershock in the coming 3 days. We will continue monitoring the situation from a distance. Our thoughts and our hearts are with the people in Japan, family, friends and strangers alike.