Aftershocks, observations and thankfulness

Japan, April 12, 2011

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Five nights ago, we had what they call a 6.9 earthquake here and I’ve heard described variously as a 7.1 and 7.4 in foreign media. By any standard it was rugged. My colleagues and I crouched in our doorways of our hotel fifth floor rooms, held each other and listened to furniture, wall art and table tops scatter and crash. The power went out. 

Thankfully no one on our team in our hotel was hurt and, within about 45 minutes through text and finally getting the odd phone signal, we found those at other hotels were safe too. No one on our team wanted to go back inside, sleeping there was clearly not an option but there were too many of us to sleep in the two cars, as other guests who “stayed” were doing. 

We left everything in our rooms and drove to the other hotel where everyone was fine except for losing power (which we later found affected about 4,000,000 people). That night we planned for the next day by flashlights whilst admiring those clever enough to have head lamps. We set up a make-shift dormitory in a two-story rental townhouse. Being in a two-story building is far more comforting than being on the fifth floor in a 10-story building, even one built with Japanese standards.

A word about that. Had we been in Haiti (2010) or China (2008), perhaps we would not all have walked out. Thanks to the strictly enforced building codes in Japan, lives were saved four nights ago, and hundreds of thousands more were saved on March 11 during that fateful 9.0 earthquake which changed Japan’s history forever.  

It is a shame this story is lost — I understand the importance of stabilizing the nuclear facility, which has global implications, but praise where praise is due. Japanese building standards and commitment to emergency preparedness saved untold numbers of lives — a story that isn't seemingly being told. 

The morning after the earthquake, we split onto three teams: team Comfort for Kids, an assessment team and team "find food and water for lunch." And here comes another interesting observation: in my last blog post, I talked about the Japanese psyche — their calm presence during disaster. As we observed in the supermarkets, no one bought more than they needed. There was no hoarding and no outward panic. Again, the different approach of the Japanese struck me. Community comes first.

When I caught up with the Comfort for Kids team at the evacuation centers the kids were playing ball, drawing, enjoying the visitors and volunteers playing with them. I sat with the kids for a while, looked at their drawings and took pictures. I nearly cried when a girl of about seven reached into a little pouch and offered me a piece of her candy.

I am learning so much being here. Being on site in a time of such chaos and seeing how the Japanese respond has been transformational. They worry if I will be cold, they apologize that there are not more “no smoking” rooms left. I am here to aid them in a time of great need and anguish and they are worrying about my own comfort.

It is humbling to my core to experience such kindness from one who has lost so much.
And yes, I now sleep in my clothes, with a clip on flashlight on my necklace and my purse as my pillow. I no longer take stable, non-shaking ground for granted.