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Learning to cope with the tremors in Japan

Japan, March 23, 2011

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I’m not used to being in a place where the ground shakes. I spent my youth and early career years in New Jersey and New York City — not exactly quake country. Since I moved to Seattle well after the Nisqually quake of 2001, I haven’t experienced much in the way of plate tectonics action in the Pacific Northwest either…yet.

The first time I felt a serious tremor was in 2008 in China, after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake shattered Sichuan Province and killed more than 69,000 people. A 6.0 “aftershock” — I consider that a full-blown earthquake — rocked me out of my bed in the middle of the night. After that jarring incident, I took note of the small tremors that would strike as I sat at my hotel room desk, causing my chair to shake, the lights to sway, and my stomach to drop uneasily.

I’d forgotten that unsettling feeling until I arrived in Japan last night. Sitting to catch up on emails, I suddenly felt everything start to jiggle and sway as I filled with dread. Oh no, I thought, I’m back in a place where the earth is struggling to settle down.

This morning at the office of Peace Winds, Mercy Corps’ partner in responding to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, colleagues laughed off my quake-filled anxiety. “Oh you’ll get used to it,” they told me.

For the people of Japan, earthquakes are a way of life. You can tell by their seemingly blasé attitude toward the tremors. You can tell when a dozen cell phones go off simultaneously in a restaurant because the network is announcing an impending aftershock. You can tell when you walk around Tokyo and realize that a 9.0 magnitude earthquake 250 miles from the city center did almost zero damage. These people are prepared.

But not for what happened almost two weeks ago. Nobody — even people in one of the most wealthy, well-prepared countries in the world — could have been ready for a crushingly powerful earthquake, followed by a massive tsunami, followed by more than a week of nuclear radiation-induced anxiety. Some things are just too much to bear.

Tomorrow I will make a 16-hour journey to Kesennuma, one of the hardest hit areas of the north where Peace Winds and Mercy Corps have been working to meet the needs of quake survivors who now find themselves homeless and having lost everything. As I consider the next day’s trip, my stomach drops again — not because of a tremor but in anticipation of bearing witness to devastation and human suffering.

And the tremors don’t help.