Google+ Sandra's Stories: Disaster

Monday, 24 December 2012

My oblivion reaches new heights: How did I not notice the tsunami and nuclear power disaster?

On March 11 2011 at 2.46pm a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan resulting in a huge tsunami, a terrible nuclear disaster, and large-scale loss of life. I was in Tokyo at the time. Yet somehow I didn’t realize that an epic disaster had occurred…

The earthquake interrupts quiet time

I was on the 17th floor of my office building in Central Tokyo. Even though there were about 200 people crammed into one open-plan room, the office was silent as usual. Suddenly an alarm triggered. An announcement came over the loudspeaker warning us that an earthquake was coming in five seconds. I followed the lead of my Japanese colleagues and dived under my desk.

The building rocked like a ship in rough seas and the sliding doors of the filing cabinets slammed noisily into each other. My colleagues giggled nervously. I honestly believed that I was about to die, but I’m pleased to say that I didn’t cry.

A burning building seen from my office.

Silence resumes

A few minutes later, everyone got back to work, interrupted by the occasional loudspeaker announcement telling us that we weren’t allowed to leave the building. The massive aftershocks became almost endless and I guess there wasn’t much point in exclaiming over each one when the building was constantly shaking. I tried to check the internet for information about what had happened but all I could find out was that Cath was having drinks at Manly Wharf Bar and it was awesome! I emailed my family in Australia to tell them that I was OK but they hadn’t heard about the earthquake.

Some lucky scheduling

Coincidentally, I’d been planning to fly home to Australia that afternoon for a friend’s wedding and had flights booked. I managed to phone QANTAS and found out that my flight had been delayed by 24 hours.

I get hungry and the TV news is confusing

Finally I was allowed to leave the building and I walked home as usual. There were a lot of people on the streets as the trains weren’t running, but everyone was eerily quiet and calm. It was only my second week in Japan so I had no internet connection at home. I didn’t know how to play English on my TV, and it seemed like the mobile phone network was down, so I became completely out of touch with the world.

I was bored and so… I ate. I ate through all the food in my house. So much for emergency earthquake supplies, but back then I didn’t know we were supposed to be hoarding food for disaster.

I watched the Japanese news but I couldn’t understand anything. I saw images of a big wave and people standing on higher ground, but they never showed any bodies. Everyone seemed so calm on the TV that I honestly believed that no one had died and the situation was under control.

The news kept showing images of a grey building near a coastline. I didn’t understand why they kept flashing back to that same building. It didn’t look damaged or particularly important.

My microwave had moved when I got home

Surprise! in Australia

The next day I headed off to the airport. It took a few hours to get there as many of the train lines weren’t running. The airport was crowded with people when I arrived but everyone exchanged earthquake stories while we waited in line. When my plane took off we all cheered.

I landed back in Australia the next day and my parents picked me up. They were so relieved to see me as I’d been out of touch since I’d left my office two days before. Apparently that grey building I’d seen on TV was the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant – there had been explosions and there was an unstable nuclear disaster unfolding. I had no idea. When my parents told me the numbers of people who had perished in the tsunami I was shocked and saddened. I felt guilty that I hadn’t shown more concern for my colleagues who were left behind and that I’d been so oblivious to Japan’s suffering. I also felt surprised at how calm everyone had appeared, considering what had been happening.

My colleagues are OK

I was eventually able to get in contact with my colleagues and check that they were all OK. I spent the next week answering phone calls and emails from people who contacted my family to check that I was alive. It seemed that I was the only one in the world who had been oblivious to the dire situation…