One of the largest earthquakes in history, a devastating tsunami and a nuclear catastrophe, from 600km away.
“This is the gas station. What’s left of it”. In front of me, 20m below on the other side of the road, all I see is a container and oil drums out in the open. No gas pumps, no bright neon lights, no Combini, no advertisements, no music, no pavement. Still, a functioning gas station: when a client shows up, he is greeted with the usual display of politeness. The 2 employees jump to their feet, fill up the tank and clean the windshield. They send their guests off with the customary bow. Around the gas station is emptiness. This used to be a small town, with rusting shops and narrow streets lined by a cornucopia of houses and smelling of Japanese laundry detergent, I imagine. This used to be Rikuzentakata. Today it’s a vast expense of fresh gravel stretching from this small hill I’m standing on to the other lush hill, maybe 500m away. The calm, bustling emptiness of a Zen garden from Daitoku-ji. The air is warm and damp, the sky an awkward blue. The type of weather that makes you never want to leave Japan. Normally we would not see the sea from here, but since the dike has been washed away, we can enjoy the view. I’m standing on the doorstep of Yamada-san’s* house, sweating. It’s the picture-book Japanese country house you already have in mind: perched on the side of a small hill, right on the edge of the forest, with sloping roofs of grey tiles, sliding doors and wooden frames. This house is all that is left of the village. It smells of rotting wood, of freshly crushed rocks, but mostly of silt and mud.
As news of the magnitude 9.1 earthquake hit the news rooms across the world, the wave hit this stretch of coastline in North Eastern Japan. 15m high. 18 900 people died. Some people have died over here, the others have left. What remains is this gutted house, the walls rotting, the floors ripped away. And Yamada-san. We’re a group of about 10 Gaijings. We’re here to help Yamada-san rebuild his home. Why? “Because I have to rebuild. This is my home. I live here”. Was there any other option? I feel he might have helped us more with that life lesson than we were helping him out. Today, the word “resilience” is on the first slide of every consultant’s deck or in the brochure of your local healing guru. That day, Yamada-san showed us what resilience is.
I don’t remember his lesson as often as I should. Maybe writing this down will help.
A gentle back and forth
When the quake hit on March 11th 2011, I was typing away at my computer in Toyota-Shi, more than 600km south of this area. My desk faced the wall, far enough from the window so that the sun did not blind me as I worked. If I looked out, past the criss-cross of power cables and beyond the smaller apartment blocks, I could see a playground and the edge of a small forest on the hill.
I had spent a couple of hours with friends in the morning. We had lunch at a Hannae’s place. We shufus - House Wives in Japanese -, would meet up once a month and trade cooking secrets. This time, under the supervision of a Scottish friend, we baked scones, pancakes and shortbread. For once, I wasn’t the only guy around, as Marek had joined. He had followed his wife to Japan as well. He knew things about life already, and was a fun acolyte.
First it came as a light dizziness. I must have thought I was getting drowsy, as I usually do after lunch. Looking out the window, the telephone pole was dancing, slowly rocking back and forth. It took a few seconds for the swaying to become obvious. We had been living in Japan for 2 years already, but it took yet more time for me to realize this was an earthquake. Wow! Not a small tremor, a real one this time.
We had been talking recently with Sandy - my wife - that she felt none of the minor earthquakes. She spent most of her waking hours in an office building. It was the deep focus on her work or the built quality of the office, but something was shielding her from feeling the light tremors. I picked up my phone and sent her a message along the lines of “How about this one? don’t tell me you did not feel it”, knowing already I would not get a reply. Work is hard-work in Japan. I took notice of the particular rhythm of this one now: a gentle but definite back and forth. Only then did it stop.
A quick message to Marek as well. He was driving back to his place and probably felt nothing in the car. Poor him, he missed it.
Every time I felt something that might have been an earthquake, I had made it a habit of checking the magnitude and the location of the epicentre on the Japanese Meteorological Agency’s website. Things were not so clear this time. Some green, yellow, and orange dots of different sizes spread out along the country’s coastline. Seems like it was a medium-sized earthquake, not so far away from here. Never mind: I was trying to figure out what Amazon wanted from me - yes, I still ordered from them. I had gotten a long email in Japanese and was not sure if the book I ordered was on its way to our mailbox or not. I end up calling Hannae; she was always of great help.
I need to turn this TV on
“Have you felt it? Have you seen, in the north? It’s a really big one,” she starts. “Yes, a big one,” I add with a small laugh, the usual laugh that comes out of me when I’m nervous on the phone. I switch to my Amazon topic. “Turn on your TV,” she tells me before hanging up. Instead, I turn back to the earthquake website. Clicking back through the timeline of the day, I find it, a big purple circle on the north-east coast. Magnitude 8 or above. Even Europeans know that’s a big one. Still, that’s 600km away. Could I have felt that?
My brain switches to investigation mode. Focus. It’s past 7.30a.m. in Paris. Is it big enough that news channels in Europe have picked it up? They have.
It’s been about 50min since the quake hit. It’s time to get the TV working. We have this huge flat screen that we never turn on. I fumble with the remote. A cable is missing. I need to find that cable. I find it suck between the shelf and the wall. I need to plug it in. I need to make it work. Second try. OK. It works. It’s a live, full screen, feed of a coast line shot from a helicopter. No comments. Or maybe I muted the entire thing. A long, white line scares the sea. What am I looking at? The white line is getting closer. It touches ground. The wave sweeps in and races up inland. It catches up with the cars. The small cars. Some of them are scrambling to escape. They get absorbed. It does not stop. The feed does not stop. The wave does not stop. The wave floods the fields. The wave wipes out the houses. The feed stops and turns to a talking head. I don’t understand the talking head. I turn the TV off.
I have a distinct memory of my brain handling these images as if they were fiction. With a sense of detachment and a semi-subconscious voice in the background inhibiting my flight instinct. Reassuring me and reminding me to enjoy the show: the guys in the small white cars, they are going to be OK. It took me hours or days to register, to realize what I had seen on that screen had been live, real, deadly and out of human control.
The news fire hose is wide open
Quickly, the first emails flood my inbox. Europeans are waking up to the news. My replies are quick: all OK over here, no damages, no loss of life, no wave. I must have sent some messages to my parents in the US as well to make sure the good news reached them before they woke up. I stop replying. I don’t know what to answer.
I feel restless and stay glued to the news feed. I just stare at the images coming in from the coastline. Mid-afternoon, the European news outlet slowly start focusing their attention away from the Tsunami-hit area in the north and on to Fukushima. The army is being sent in with hazmat suits. People in a 3km radius are being evacuated. The nuclear power plant is not connected to the grid anymore, it’s cut out from the rest of the world. No one knows what is going on. That’s not good. The evacuation radius is extended to 20km. A quick sanity check tells me we are 400km away from that plant. As far as nuclear accidents go, is that far enough? I had never asked myself that question. It felt far enough.
I’m more thirsty for information on the situation up north. It seems entire cities have been wiped out. Did people have time to seek shelter on higher grounds? Is that even possible? Surely there was a warning signal of some sort. This is Japan after all. I have no benchmark to compare what is happening against.
Most of the emails I receive are now focusing on Fukushima and the looming nuclear catastrophe. What is going on there, in Fukushima?
Let’s unplug, if we can
It’s Friday evening. Sandy makes it back home, probably between 11.30 and midnight. Everyone had just carried on working after the tremors had stopped. I need to pop the bubble which was still protecting her: thousands are dead; we do not know how many. Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes, we do not know how many. And there is that nuclear power plant, we do not know what’s going on there but it’s probably bad.
We had planned on going to the mountains on the weekend and we decide to stick with the plan. On the highway, cars and trucks from phone, gas, electric and elevator companies are already making their way up north. All hands on deck to get basic services back up and running. I don’t remember where we went, where we stayed, what we did. I remember telling myself that we should not be enjoying time off while dozens of thousands of people had lost everything just a few hundred kilometres away. It was not right, but it felt good. It felt good to step away from the news feed and the emails, at least a bit.
The Japanese government is censoring the news coming out of Fukushima. That is my feeling. They want to avoid the panic reaching Tokyo. European news outlets are reporting all possible rumours and mapping out scenarios.
Scenarios come in two flavours, depending on the pre-conceived opinion of the expert. The nuclear lobby is quick to drive the point that the actual risk to the population is zero, whatever happens. The anti-nuclear lobby is already talking about a catastrophe worse than Chernobyl. Your opinion doesn’t matter, what I need are facts. Or at least we need a sign: is it bad and getting worse? Is it terrible and getting better? What does “terrible” mean when we’re talking about a nuclear power plant 400km away from home? How bad can it get?
I have a revelation. A feeling that others might describe in religious terms. I feel the truth. It comes not from my head but from my body, from inside me. It would come from my soul if I had one. The truth had revealed itself to me in all its splendour and clear simplicity: nuclear power is absurd. There is nothing than can justify using it. Nothing. It is so absurd that I pull out my best browser tab to write an email to Eva Joly. The European Parliament is reviewing the final approval plan for the construction of the ITER reactor, in a seismic area close to Aix-en-Provence. Maybe I can put a stop to that absurdity! I get a supportive reply. I was ignorant. Emotions were taking over. I took the time to like the “Nuclear Power” page on Facebook - Yes, I had a FB account.
Meanwhile, 400km away, the plant’s outer protection shell is breached. The cores are not cooled down as they should. Temperatures are rising and the army is scrambling to cool the reactors. The engineers at the plant have no clue about what is happening outside of their so-called control room. On Sunday their ignorance is lifted: the 1st reactor enclosure explodes.
Let’s get very pragmatic
Now things are clear: at least part of the reactor cores have melted and the worse can still happen. Still, there was no way to define “worse”.
Back home after our mountain trip, things get very pragmatic. I trusted the engineers. I understood Fukushima was not a nuclear bomb. I knew we were 400km away. Still, the actual feeling, the one that came from deep inside my brain, was one of gentle panic.
I proceeded to update my knowledge on nuclear energy, with a special crash course on nuclear safety and health risks. I found reliable information sources, or at least sources I trusted more. The first one was the French nuclear safety institute (IRSN). I devoured the daily updates and scenarios they started pushing out. Then some students and universities set up a small network of Geiger counters and connected them to the internet, with webcams. We could follow radioactivity levels at several points between us and the power stations, with our own eyes. It seemed the radioactivity levels were OK for now. We learned later on that the counters were setup too late, after the peak in radioactivity.
We upgraded our earthquake emergency pack: food and water for a week, essentials to survive in the cold and the rain. We bought enough masking tape to seal off the house and we decided on an evacuation plan: we would pack our survival pack and our bikes, drive south west and avoid the highways.
Then Sandy and I sat down for what was the most serious discussion we ever had. All expats we knew, except our Friends Marek, Petra and Venu, where booking flights and leaving. Some were forcefully put on flights back to Europe by their companies. The French Consulate had started evacuating people from Tokyo and flying children back to France.
I have a clear memory of Hannae’s face when I told her this or that person was leaving. The Japanese mask fell for just an instant, showing a shimmering of disappointment. Of despair also.
We decide to stay. The decision was simple for us as we had no children. We’ve been abusing the hospitality of our friends for two years already. They woke up at 4 in the morning to take us climbing in the mountains (no joke); they took us to the naked man Matsuri festival (again, no joke); and to the fireworks festival; they let me sleep in their house and they literally wiped the sweat of my back (still not a joke) when I was hiking from Tokyo to Kyoto; they taught us how to make Okonomiyaki and Mochi, and Saru-Soba; they showed us how to dance the dance of the dead; they had us eat pickled pork ears on our very first day; they even pretended to understand when I spoke Japanese. We took baths with them for crying out loud! And when things get a bit unusual, we’re supposed to jump on a plane, wave, smile and wish them “Good Luck”? “We’ll think of you”, “Let’s pick up where we left off once everything is normal again”, “Oh ... and watch out for that power plant there, it might blow up any minute.”?
I reply to the flow of emails. It feels good to send good news, to feel the friends and family just a bit closer than they actually are. It’s a burden to have to calm everyone down. Every time I type reassuring words, every time I explain the situation, I am reminded of all the uncertainty in the news I sent. I’m also reminded that thousands have lost their homes and that we should worry more about them. On Tuesday I stop the artisan work and send a mass email. I get that burden off my mind. Sandy is back at work.
Digging through my emails from the time, I find this one:
What’s the risk today? What’s the risk tomorrow? What do we do if a radioactive cloud heads our way? ... None of these questions have answers. No one knows what is actually going on, not even those guys on the ground there, sacrificing their lives for us right now. I’m following things very closely, that’s all I do, actually. But it’s becoming too painful to look for answers all the time. And: we have a roof over our heads, fresh water to drink, electricity, food, ... it’s not the case for everyone here.
We’re safe. We can’t control what’s happening in Fukushima. It’s time to move on, to think about something else, to do something else. And it seems people have moved on already: rush hour is still rush hour; stocks of Toilet Paper are back to normal again; crowds at the Tagata shrine in Komaki join the annual penis festival... all normal. Stocks of some essentials - candles, bottled water, pre-cooked rice... - are low for a few days though.
Already on Friday afternoon, my friend Marek was looking for ways to get active and help out our neighbours in northern Japan. He forwards me a mail from the expat community in Nagoya:
“There will be a meeting on Thursday at 6pm at Shooters (the expat bar in Nagoya) hosted by a few people, including Lowell, on how to give aid - what we can do, etc. We should all go”
Marek picks me up at the station’s Starbucks - my life was so different back then ... - and we head out to Shooters. We are instantly teleported to the US: the pub bursts with energy, people who have solutions, people who know people, people who won’t just sit there and watch. I’m telling myself: “It’s just talk, right? They’re all completely delusional. How can we possibly do anything meaningful?” They proceeded to show me.
It’s that simple
Lowell is a US citizen. One day his father - who I think was a missionary - took him to the horn of Africa and told him to “look at the misery. Let it break your heart“. He had the courage to let it break his heart. From that point on, he did what he could to help the world’s poorest. He did a lot. He had moved to Nagoya, his wife’s hometown, and setup the Asian branch of a US based NGO. It turns out that when you’re an expert at helping poor farmers in Cambodia, you can direct your energy, optimism and know-how to your neighbours as well.
He has a plan: we’ll call on people to donate money and essential items on Saturday and Sunday, we’ll rent some trucks, on Monday we’ll drive them up north and we’ll deliver what we have to the people who need it. It’s that simple. The director of the Hilton makes some space available, a helicopter pilot friend - we all have one, right? - will scout out the route and liaise with the local community. Money is raised to rent the trucks. It’s that simple.
To close up the evening, the US Consul sums up the situation: “I’m staying here, my family is staying here”. It’s that simple.
Some friends had planned to take us climbing in the mountains on Saturday. I cannot go. Sandy fulfils our social obligation and accepts the invitation. It’s a nice sunny day and already mild at 8am. A small group of Gaijins gets busy next to the Hilton’s main entrance in downtown Nagoya. A few tables, a laptop and a pile of cardboard boxes. Donors are already dropping by as I get there. I stay and help: great the donors, pack the boxes, inventory the boxes, load the boxes. As with all well thought out enterprise, everything just seems to fall into place. It’s hard work, and it feels easy. It’s trivial work, and it feels useful. I’m impressed by how Isa runs the show: calm (Can someone please figure out how to get an internet connection over here?), pragmatic (Let’s go find some more boxes!) and resolute (We only accept donations for essentials: read the list of essentials!). By the end of the afternoon we’ve filled two trucks with warm clothes, baby formula, baby bottles - people like to donate things for babies -, sanitary napkins - people are less inclined to donate thing for menstruating women -, diapers - for all ages, again people prefer the baby type -, flashlights, batteries, radios, tarps, stoves, phone chargers,… We need more trucks.
We also need people to drive those trucks. But I’m supposed to be on a boat in a few days, taking me from Kobe to Tianjin, in China.
I had planned this three-week trip to China for a while. I had bought the Visa, the tickets, booked the hotels and arranged to meet a friend in Hong Kong. I had to see China with my own eyes, with my own nostrils, mouth and feet. Of course, going meant saying no to driving one of those trucks and saving the world. It also meant leaving Sandy alone. What if that power plant mess got worse? What if there was another big earthquake?
I went to China.
In Kobe the custom’s officer seems to struggle with my case. I’m French. I live in Japan. I’m not working, but my wife is. I’m leaving the country alone. I’m boarding the boat for poor Chinese immigrants, those who cannot afford a flight. How could this possibly make any sense? His body language says “Let me have a closer look and seriously check this passport”, but I know better than to interpret Japanese body language with my European eyes. I think I know what he actually was saying: “what is this mess? Should I ask for help? Let me pretend all is OK and stamp this passport”.
To the great surprise of the crew, the ship was full. Chinese students were being asked to come back home and those who could not find or afford a flight ended up taking the boat.
In China, I learned that the earthquake, the tsunami, the nuclear catastrophe and all that, were just the outcome of a weapon’s test. One the US was developing to fight China. An important businessman from Shanghai told me that. My face said “You’ve just reach the top of the list of the most ignorant people I’ve ever met”, my mouth said nothing. I always shut up. I’ve met other ignorant people since then.
3 weeks later I was back in Japan.
Back home, mid-April, the Fukushima situation doesn’t so much stabilize as it normalizes. At least there is a plan, and an improvised system to keep the reactors cool enough. Everyday something might disrupt the plan, but at least there is a plan. It’s the start of a stabilization and decontamination process that will last at least 50 years.
Together with Marek, we set out to make good use of our time. Once the emergency search and rescue operations were over, the Japanese government refused any direct foreign involvement in the disaster relief efforts. The only way to contribute was to make a donation to the Japanese Red Cross. But that would not stop the team from All Hands volunteers - they are now called All Hands and Hearts.
All Hands was founded by David Campbell, a successful business manager from the US, in 2004. He was on the brink of retirement when south east Asia was devastated by the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. Within days, he had raised money from friends and family and gotten on a plane to Thailand. With no experience in disaster relief and no knowledge of the country, he setup an NGO to help the locals rebuild their homes and livelihoods. By 2011, All Hands had developed their own, grass roots, approach to disaster relief. When a disaster hits, All Hands sends one or two experts in to identify communities in need. They skip the entire political and administrative layers and talk directly to the communities. If a local community is interested and All Hands feels they can help, they send a core team of 5 or 6 people to organise lodging, food, equipment, raise money, etc. Then, they bring in volunteers to support the community. Today, All Hands and Hearts has run over 120 relief operations in 20 countries.
When the quake struck, Yamamoto-san* was getting ready to retire as well. In his late 40s, he had been a successful banker. Successful enough that his career ended with a parachute paid out by the British taxpayers in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Everything was ready. He just needed to board a flight to Hawai. When a friend of his told him about the destruction of half of his home town, he changed his plans for retirement. He had known All Hands for the work they had done before, called them in to help in Ofunato, under the radar of the administration. He dedicated his time and his fortune to rebuilding the town and its fishing industry.
Marek got us a spot on the list of volunteers to join the project and mid-May we drove up north, planning to stay in Ofunato for 2 weeks. It was a small fishing town, hit hard by the recession of the 90s, rusty and declining like most of Japan’s small towns. All Hands had set up base in an old warehouse, 200m west or so from the high point reached by the Tsunami wave. We were greeted by the local head of operations. Things were simple: all we needed to do was to give our names. We were offered a Bento for lunch and immediately shipped in a minibus to join one team. The town was empty. The project was very typical of the work All Hands was doing in Ofunato. The goal was to save the houses that had been flooded, but not destroyed, by sea water before they rotted away. It went like this: remove the furniture and private items if still there, remove all the plaster walls, all the floors, the bathrooms, remove the mud. Later, construction workers would come in and rebuild the houses. We were given a chisel and a hammer each and set out to work, simply copying what the others were doing. We were happy to be there. Sore backs and arms where sign of a good afternoon’s worth of work.
We quickly got acquainted with the others and how this small community of 30 volunteers ticked. In keeping with its ambition to serve the community, All Hands provided jobs to some locals who took up responsibility for the cooking, for driving people around and for the general up keeping of the base. Lunches were excellent: home made Bento boxes, every day a different one. Dinners were basic, in the pure Japanese home cooking style. Excellent as well. Life was organized around 2 meetings: in the morning the different project leads explained what needed to be done for the day, if they needed special help, etc. In the evening, they would give us a recap. The crowd cheered when a house was saved. There was space to speak up if needed. Very professional and very laid back: American.
Most of us were sleeping in a sports center, perched up on a hill, about a 15min walk away from base. We shared the centre with families that had lost their homes. Before heading up there on our first day, we went to see the town for ourselves. We head east, towards the coast, and quickly pass the high water mark. On one side: houses standing. On the other side: a field of debris. The tsunami had destroyed about half of the city. Destroyed: not one house left standing in the area close to the port. A vast pile of rubble, tangled beams of wood, cars and everything you could find in a Japanese house. Fishing boats double the size of houses had been washed up shore, 500 meters or so. They were propped up by piles of debris on both sides. We noticed some bright paint markings here and there on the piles of debris. Other volunteers later explained these were the marks of the search and rescue teams. In the hours and days following the destruction, they would report on their findings: one type of mark signalled that the pile of had been searched, another that bodies had been found. Other teams then came to deal with those. The smell was that of a construction site mixed with seaweed and wood. The tranquillity was unsettling. Not wanting to be caught sightseeing, we make it a quick one. We would get plenty of opportunities to come back.
Each day was hard work. It was fulfilling work. The most fulfilling work I have ever done. I still don’t know how to deal with this paradox: the misery of some brings fulfilment to others. An American writer talked about a “paradise built in hell”. I quickly realized we had a larger impact than the small handy work we were doing: we were showing to the people of Ofunato that others cared enough to travel halfway around the planet to help - about half of the volunteers came from the US. Ofunato was on the map and was worth helping. Each house that we worked on was worth saving.
One of the minibus drivers had last part of his family, his home, his job. Everyone he knew had left. He stayed and help the town he had once despised get back on his feet. He took out his phone and showed us the video of the wave coming in the village, wiping away everything. 40 people gathered around a small telephone screen ... not a sound. All Hands used his footage to raise funds and sustain the project.
I decide to stay two weeks longer and would come back a second time, during summer. This time taking Sandy, my brother Guillaume and Venu - another friend. Guillaume had set aside most of his year’s worth of paid leave to visit us in Japan and we ended up spending most of our time together in Ofunato, clearing debris.
By then, the All Hands base had moved and the number of volunteers had ballooned. The work to be done was endless. We did what the big machines and excavators could not do: clear out irrigation ditches in the rice fields, sanitize houses. One day, a special, “difficult” project shows up on the board. We were asked to clear the rubbles of a small seaweed packaging plant in the port area. Piles of seaweed had been rotting there for months and the site had not been searched for human remains. It was hard. It was needed. We worked tirelessly for 3 days hauling bales of rotten seaweed. I was asked to lead one project and was assigned a house to be gutted. I managed the volunteers that came to that remote site every day. We did a good job, the owner was happy.
A volunteer had launched her own project: she would scan damaged family photos found in the rubbles, send them around the world to a community of graphic artists that would patch and retouch them before sending them back to be printed again. There was a high demand and each family could choose only one picture to be saved. One memory.
I would move back to Brussels a few weeks after coming back home from that second trip to Ofunato.
This is what a Magnitude 9.1 earthquake, a Tsunami and a nuclear catastrophe looked like from 600km away.
PS: I am writing this 10 years after the facts. I’ve marked with a * the names that I have forgotten.
PPS: During these times, our family mural was marked by two other events, independent from the earthquake. Still, I want to mention that in early April my aunt Annie passed away, after a brief fight against cancer. I did not say goodbye. I have not said goodbye yet. And my niece Marion was born end of April! I would not meet her for another 6 months, but it felt good having a new niece!