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A reminder

Japan, April 11, 2011

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I was writing my blog Thursday night when the floor started to hammer.

It was after eleven and I’d been thinking about going down to the bath house on the ground floor of the hotel, open late because there was still no hot water in the rooms. In the meantime I wrote a little, checked my email, looked at the news.

And then the room was rattling. Then pounding.

There had been many aftershocks since I arrived in Japan, long resonating vibrations or gentle bumps felt through my mattress. But this one was entirely different. The room was shaking violently from side to side.

I jumped up, grabbed my key, ran out into the hallway where I found my colleagues (the foreign ones — my Japanese colleagues, who have more confidence in their architects, were under their desks). The hallway rocked, pictures fell off the walls. The lights suddenly dimmed, changing the ambience from garish to ghostly as the power was cut and the emergency electricity automatically switched on.

After maybe a minute, the swaying slowed, then faded. We jumped up from the floor. I ran into my room, which was unrecognizable. The mirror had fallen off the wall, everything had fallen off the desk. I scrabbled around in the mess until I found my phone, put on my shoes, grabbed my coat, and followed my colleagues down the emergency stairway on the outside of the building, into the cold Touhoku night.

The power was out everywhere, and seemed likely to stay that way. None of us felt like staying in that hotel any longer, and anyway our rooms were in shambles.

After some discussion, we decided to go to the apartment of another colleague nearby. We drove slowly through intersections with dark traffic lights. After settling in at the apartment — eight people in a space planned for two — a few of us went out to see if we could get some food for the next day, but the twenty-four-hour convenience stores dotted around the town had already papered over their glass doors with hand-written signs saying “Closed for the Day.” More encouragingly, there were already people in uniform out at major intersections, directing traffic with glowing red batons.

We went back to the apartment and slept huddled together, the heat gone with the electricity. The aftershocks that continued through the night felt and sounded like a hurricane rattling a small shack, but the apartment was in a row of units that never would have been moved by the wind.

The electricity was still out in the morning, and shops were still closed. Without electricity, gas stations can’t pump up their gas. Fortunately, Peace Winds Japan still had some stores of gasoline from the early phase of the emergency, and so we decided to go to the field as planned. On Oshima Island they told us they had just gotten their electricity back the day before, only to have it go out again.

When we returned it was early evening, starting to get dark. There was still no electricity, and the emergency power had run out of the hotels. Restaurants were closed, and one hotel was giving out rice balls to all its customers. We started to worry: cell phones and computers would run out of power, cars would eventually run out of gas. None of us had showered (in some cases because there was no running water in the hotel, in some cases because of a reluctance to shower in cold water in a cold place with no heat until absolutely necessary). I slept in my clothes, flashlight in one pocket, cell phone in the other, under a warm futon.

By the next morning the electricity had come back on in some parts of the city, and later that day we were able to bathe (in the new hotel’s communal bath, since the city was requesting that we save power by not taking hot showers. Having a large tub full of hot water was a necessity they were not apparently willing to sacrifice).

Washing my hair for the third time, I thought about how quickly fear and discomfort grow when we are without electricity, security, a place to sleep. I thought about the evacuees who had to go for weeks without a bath, who will have to go months without rooms of their own. Even the tiny fraction of their experience that we had just gone through was a reminder of why we are here.