The Quake: March 11, 2011

THE QUAKE

My 3-year-old daughter has learnt a new word: jishin. Earthquake to you and me. She learnt it in the garden of my house as we took refuge from the violent earthquake that hit Japan at 14:46 on March 11, 2011.

We were 400 km from the epicentre and experienced a 5+ on the Japanese scale. (It’s actually a 10-point scale, but as the previous scale was only a seven-point scale, they decided not to go beyond 7 when they revised it. I guess it would scare people if earthquakes were allowed to go into double figures. Five-plus is actually a 7 on a 10-point scale.)

As my wife and I stood in our garden, we were scared. It would be stupid to be anything else. Earthquakes are not something you can control or laugh off. The small ones rattle your nerves; the big ones kill you. One of the nice things about living in the country is that we can run into the garden to avoid having things fall on us. Of course, the garden could open up and swallow us, but it seems safer being outside.

As the ground rolled and my house wobbled, I tried to explain the phenomenon of earthquakes to my daughter, moving my hand from side to side and pointing out that our house was shaking, along with everything else in the neighbourhood.

We had only been back in Japan for 24 hours, having spent the previous two weeks on vacation. We hadn’t unpacked. I had been trying to catch up with a few things in my upstairs office. I wanted to get them out of the way and jump into the bath I had run earlier.

The upstairs of the house gives us our first warning of a quake. The windows in the old wooden cabinet where I keep my CDs rattle at the drop of a hat. When I hear the sound of shaking glass, I know it’s an earthquake. Usually, they don’t bother me that much, but I would rather be outside my house than in it if it’s going to be a big one.

So I dash out of my office and rush down the stairs – every time. Well, almost. Sometimes the quake stops before I get to the top of the stairs, where I’ll wait expecting more. This time, by the time I got to the top of the stairs, my wife had already rushed to my daughter’s play room. I bounded down the stairs and as I got to the front door, things started to move a lot. I shouted to my wife to get out quick.

We live 100 meters from the sea at an elevation of roughly 5 meters. I have had dreams about tsunami since I moved here. I know the danger. I know we have to get out and away from the sea when a quake hits. On March 11, I was trying to calm my daughter, absent from nursery school as we’d only just returned from Thailand. The tsunami fear hadn’t registered yet. I moved my hand from side to side, demonstrating a shaking motion to my daughter.

“Tsunami,” my wife cried. How had I forgotten? I handed her our daughter and rushed inside to get my car key. You don’t wait around. A powerful tsunami can arrive in two or three minutes.

I couldn’t find my car key. As we’d parked the car at Narita Airport, I had removed the key from my normal bunch of keys and after we arrived home, my wife had locked the car and put the key in a different place.

I checked the hook for the spare key.

Nothing.

I rushed outside to ask my wife where the spare keys were. She’d taken them off the hook and put them in a pretty little glass case, without telling me. I threw it open on the floor and searched for a Toyota mark. I got the Nissan mark on the key of my wife’s car. I thought about that for a moment before realizing that my car blocked its exit. I searched again and found my spare key, dashed outside and started driving.

We turned on the radio – we never turn on the radio – as the tsunami warning signal started blaring from the loudspeakers in our neighbourhood. For once, I was thankful for the neighbourhood PA system. I still don’t know why they play a wake-up jingle at 7 a.m. every morning, but I was paying attention now.

I’d always had a plan in mind. Assuming that I could get out in my car and the roads weren’t blocked, I figured I could get to my friend Mike’s clifftop house in a couple of minutes. Of course, the lost key had added a minute and other people had gotten in their cars by the time I reached the main road. It was getting busy.

A man in a small truck drove ahead of us. He was heading to the port, presumably to get on a boat and take it to safety out to sea. A small white car was ahead of him.

Traffic lights.

There is a set of traffic lights at the road going down to the port. The man in the white car stopped.

Are you nuts, I thought.  A 10-meter wave is heading toward us (that was the initial estimate) and you stop for the fucking lights. I was anxious but didn’t panic as I could see down the road to the sea and the road to Mike’s house was only 100 meters further up. And the lights had to change sometime.

Green. The man in the truck sped down to the port, the man in the white car drove straight ahead and I flew up the hill to Mike’s house, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea.

We listened to the radio. They were predicting waves of 2-3 meters to arrive in 30 minutes. That shouldn’t be a problem for our house, but you never know. I decided to go home and get cameras and passports and coats. We’d left in a hurry.

There were more people up on the hill when I got back, and my wife was sitting on Mike’s deck (Mike was elsewhere). I pointed out that if another earthquake came along, to stay away from the deck as it’s only a couple of meters from the cliff edge.

Another earthquake came along. A big one. It was 3:15.

I shouted at my wife to get off the deck and further up the hill behind Mike’s house. The whole world was shaking again, and it went on and on and on. This quake has been largely ignored by the media. Perhaps not surprisingly as the main quake in northern Japan was 9.0 on the Richter scale. That was 400 km away. The second one registered 7.9 on the Richter scale and was only 120 km away. That’s a big fucking quake and in earthquake terms – especially at 7.9 – 120 km is almost on your doorstep. It was another 5+ on the Japanese scale – strong, but still some way off the top of the scale.

The Earth wasn’t going to stop shaking any time soon.

 

THE WAVES

The first tsunami had been due to arrive at 3:20. We stared at the sea. We checked Taito port and the jetties around it. Nothing seemed to be happening.

At around 3:30, the water started to rise. It was almost imperceptible, but the jetty seemed to get lower and lower. There was no wave, no warning, nothing spectacular at all. Just some swirling in the port.

Then the water dropped – and kept dropping. It dropped to around a meter below the level we had seen when we arrived at Mike’s place. Then it came back. Again, no drama, no wave.

But there was more of it.

Tsunamis are not necessarily about big waves crashing on the shore. A tsunami is about the ocean rising – and rising and rising. The whole ocean. If you look at some of the video footage of the large tsunami in the north, it’s like the sea is just overflowing.

As I watched the second influx of water, the sea level kept rising – up the base of the jetty and the sides of the harbour walls. Then it covered the jetty that juts out into the sea, behind which they have a swimming area in the summer. And the walls in the harbour were being inundated.

Then the water went out – and out. The jetty was totally exposed and the harbour entrance was dry. Then we saw a wave. It was a bit messy, breaking at different places and it seemed to have some subwaves behind it. The empty port filled up, the water rising perhaps 4-5 meters in a few minutes. That’s a lot of water. And then it rushed out to sea again.

The beautiful sunshine we had earlier in the day had disappeared. A nasty black cloud had blown in from the north and it was trying to rain. A shadow covered the ocean. I looked out to sea at the half-a-dozen or so boats that had managed to get out to safety. A black shadow stretching across the bay bore down on the smallest vessel, which was also closest to shore. Then the boat lurched upward and disappeared momentarily. Moments later the black line turned into a breaker and headed to shore. It was held up briefly by the wall protecting the harbour entrance, but then it rushed in.

A wall stood in its way. The wall was probably over a meter wide – more at its base – and about 6-7 meters high. The water slammed into it. The wall leaned over and collapsed underneath the wave. The water rose. It covered the jetty again and covered the harbor’s internal walls. Containers drifted free.

The water sucked back into the ocean, exposing a lot of beach again. All was calm.

Another big black line formed across the sea – right across it. As the ugly black sky came to meet it, the wave rolled in and broke. Taito is Surf City. This was the perfect wave and it stretched for miles across the bay. Luckily – ironically – there had been little surf that day, so there was no one in the water when the earthquake struck. This was a nice wave, but as destructive as the first. It rushed in and grabbed a boat that hadn’t made it out to sea. It turned the boat over and tried to drag it out as the water rushed out again. The boat got stuck upside down next to the harbour wall.

As the sky grew darker from the rain and the approach of nightfall, one more wave came in. One of the larger boats had two lights on. It turned into the wave. The black line drew closer to the boat and suddenly the vessel reared up, its lights shaking from the force. It rode the crest and disappeared.

One … two … three … four…

Four seconds – and then it came back. Safe.

Darkness was falling. It was going to be a long night for the fishermen riding out the waves about 1 km offshore.

The wave rushed into the harbour and grabbed two more boats, which it tried to take out to sea. Although the water covered the sea walls in the harbour – and even flooded the car park and the lower approach road – the level was not looking critical for oceanside residents such as myself. We’d been on top of the cliff for three hours or more. It was now cold and raining and dark. We made the decision to go home, at least for a short time.

I drove down by the sea to try and see how things were. It was dark and the weather was bad. I drove through the tunnel near my house toward the two little islands – one a big rock, the other a much bigger rock about 25 meters high. The big rock separates the beach so that the waves roll in on two sides and only meet on high tides.

I peered into the gloom. The sea was out. Too far out. I could just about make out a reef in front of me. I’d never seen a reef there before. I got in the car and drove down the road before turning around and heading back up the small hill toward the tunnel, where I stopped and got out again.

In that short space of time, the emptiness where the sea was meant to be had been filled in by swirling waters and waves that crashed against the concrete walkway and the sea wall. It was violent. Here the sea had nowhere to go, so it raged in response. I got in my car and headed home to pick up necessities and take a quick shower. We didn’t stay long. Nerves were still rattled.

We drove inland, figuring putting distance between us and the ocean was the best idea, although we were following the Isumi River, which was probably less of a good idea. We stopped at the small town of Kuniyoshi, about 10km inland. I wanted to buy shoes for my daughter as we’d forgotten to bring any (we carried her everywhere on that day). All I could find were socks. We bought some drinks and snacks at a supermarket, but then decided to eat at the local ramen (noodle) shop. It was nice to sit down, eat and watch the news. We stayed for a couple of hours. I was able to finally hook up my computer and Skype my family back in England. Japan’s mobile phone network was largely dead. The TV continuously flashed maximum tsunami warnings for our area, the same warnings as for those in northern Japan. Safety first.

I had figured the tsunami would start at the epicentre of the earthquake and ripple out, but that’s not the way it worked. The wave wasn’t created at a single point. A whole slab of the planet had moved – a rectangular chunk of the Earth perhaps 100 km wide and 400 km long. We were at the southern end of the rectangle. Luckily it didn’t move as much as the top end.

We managed to connect with friends who had sought refuge at the local golf club on high ground. We were welcome there. The lodge rooms were all taken, but they had seats, toilets, tables and a TV where we could watch as the horror show unfolded.

At 3 a.m., I hugged my daughter and we went to sleep on the floor of the golf club’s dining room. My stressful day had ended in sanctuary; for much of Japan, the nightmare was only just beginning.


One Response to “The Quake: March 11, 2011”

  • Martin Says:

    Hi Fred,

    met you and Mike a few weeks ago in Namioto. Good to read your account and watch your vids of the crazyness down in Chiba.

    Its still chaotic up here in Ishnomaki and nobody is surfing up here yet, so will probably be down in chiba again soon for a break and a surf.

    Take it easy

    Mart

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