Life: The day the earth shook

When the massive earthquake hit Japan in March, former Shetland Life columnist Emily MacFarlane was working in Sendai, close to the epicentre. Here, she describes her experiences that day, and what happened in the weeks that followed.

“Sendai? Never heard of it. Is it near Tokyo?” Last year, this was the usual response when I said where I taught English. Sendai is a city of around one million people. It is situated in the Tohoku region on the north east coast of Japan and until recently I lived a very normal life there.

My week involved teaching secondary pupils English most days, with a morning at a primary school, taking night classes in Japanese, going out with my friends, singing very badly in karaoke at 1am, going to the gym, having people over to my shoe-box sized apartment and generally enjoying life in Japan. I still teach English in Sendai, but now everyone has heard of it and life will never be the same again.

On Friday the 11th of March at 2.46pm, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 hit 81 miles off the coast of Sendai and was felt throughout Japan. The quake was so powerful that the north of Japan moved around 2.4 metres closer to North America and the Earth’s axis shifted by 25cm, shortening the day by 1.8 microseconds. The earthquake also caused a tsunami with waves measuring up to 10 metres that travelled almost six miles inland in some places. At the time of writing, 13,858 people have been confirmed dead, with 4,916 injured and a further 14,175 people still missing. On top of this, the quake and subsequent tsunami knocked out the cooling systems in Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and caused the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, as radiation leaked from the plant. This is my experience of surviving what is being called the Great Tohoku Earthquake.

When I moved to Japan I was always aware of the possibility of an earthquake. Growing up in Shetland we had fire drills in school; in Japan they have earthquake drills. As part of my job orientation we had instructions on creating an earthquake survival pack and I went on an earthquake simulator that recreated the experience of being in the 1995 Kobe earthquake (magnitude of 7.2). I’m ashamed to say it now but at the time it felt almost like a theme park ride. I didn’t even put together my earthquake kit for months due to the cost and the difficulty of finding hardware shops in downtown Sendai where I live.

Now, I am so thankful that I completed my kit, with food, water and supplies, before the quake struck. Many of my friends had not, and they faced a much tougher situation that I did.

I had actually felt a few tremors in the months before the big one – small quakes that would last a couple of seconds and which were little enough for me to question whether I had actually felt something or not. On the 9th March, we had the biggest ones I had yet experienced. They measured 5.4, and I now know they were foreshocks. They were nothing in comparison to what was to come.

The moment that the quake hit is still burned in my memory. I was sitting at my desk in the staff room emailing my dad about the two tremors we had felt earlier in the week. I wrote about how big they felt and how close their epicentres were to Sendai. Looking back now it seems such bizarre chance that I should be doing that just at that moment.

Seconds after I pressed “send” the ground began to move. For a moment it felt like it was going to be similar to those tremors I had felt before; everything moved slightly from side to side as if a large truck was rumbling past outside. I heard one of the other teachers saying “jishin”: earthquake.

Initially no one was worried because we’d all felt the same sensation so many times before and it had come to nothing. Like the rest of the teachers in the room, I held on to my computer to stop it from jolting off the desk and waited. However, instead of the sensation fading away as it usually did, it started to build, more and more.

The low background rumble of the earthquake grew to a roar as the building shook. It’s hard to describe but it almost felt like something had picked up the school and was throwing it around like a toy. Everything was being thrashed about the room violently. People started shouting and instinct kicked in. As I and most of the other teachers got under our desks, the staff closest to the door ran to sound the earthquake siren and broadcast over the loudspeaker for all the students and staff in the classrooms to cover their heads and go under the protection of their desks. In the staff room teachers were shouting “Atama! Atama!” (Head! Head! – i.e. cover your head) and my desk moved violently as I tightly held onto its legs.

There were loud bangs as book shelves, chairs and desks fell over and then as part of the ceiling in the corridor outside the staff room collapsed. The shaking seemed to go on forever. I kept thinking “Please stop! Please stop!”. Through the table legs I could see my supervisor under her desk next to me and I wanted to reach out to hold her hand to comfort both of us. I imagined being trapped under my desk if the building fell down, and every second the ground kept shaking I thought “it’s not fallen yet, if it stops now it’ll be ok”.

I was aware that my feet were sticking out from under the desk and I tried to curl up as small as possible against the back of the metal desk. Days later I found bruises on my body where I had pushed myself so hard against the metal. At the time I didn’t feel anything; all I knew was that I had to stay under the desk where I would be safe.

After what felt like hours, but was only a few minutes, the shaking got less and then stopped. At once everyone was up. By the time I’d managed to get out from under my desk most of the staff had run out towards the classrooms. “Get outside! Go!”, my supervisor shouted at me and I grabbed a jumper and ran. “Here! Here!”, in the corridor one of the other teachers pointed me towards a door. It’s funny to think about it now but at the time I was worried about getting my indoor shoes dirty by being outside. Living and working in Japan for a while certain cultural aspects (like having separate shoes for outside and inside) have become very ingrained in me. Of course, some things in life are more important than shoes, so I ran outside anyway.

As we were all gathering on the sports field the heavens opened and it began to snow. None of the students had their coats and it was very cold. The teachers did a head count and we shivered as I talked to the students. Some of them were very upset and burst into tears with each aftershock, while others seemed ecstatic to be out of lessons. My school is very academic but even here there was amazement when one of the students pulled out his textbook and wanted to ask a question about his homework.

The school nurse realised I was shaking. I’m not sure whether it was from the shock or the cold, but she rubbed my hands while she spoke to me in Japanese. I couldn’t understand everything she said but her words of comfort were very welcome.

One of the other English teachers came over and kept saying “New Zealand, New Zealand”. The Christchurch earthquake was still in the front of everyone’s minds and we were all worried that something similar had happened in Japan. Some of the teachers turned on their phones to check the news (many Japanese phones can receive TV signals) but they were careful to stay away from the students so as not to upset them. I heard whispers of “tsunami” but since the school is located well inland and up a big hill I wasn’t worried about us.

Standing out on the sports field we could still feel the ground moving regularly with aftershocks, but it became so cold that the teachers decided to get the students into the gym which was a separate and newer building. We put chairs under the lights to mark out floor space to be avoided in case they fell.

At 4 o’clock, the usual home time, it was announced that all students who could walk home were allowed to leave. I was also told to go home and I walked the one and a half hours back to my apartment. The roads were gridlocked with traffic. Everyone was trying to get home or to check on friends and family. When I got to my flat there were many things on the floor, but apart from being a mess there was thankfully no structural damage. My flat is directly across the street from an evacuation centre (the large gym hall of the local Junior High School) but I decided I would be warmer staying at home, and I would move across the street if things got worse.

There was no electricity, water or gas in my flat and the phone lines had been shut down so they could be used by the emergency services. Thankfully though, I have a phone that is equipped to access the internet and it was still working. I managed to use Skype to call my parents and tell them I was ok, some four hours after the earthquake. I then spent a cold night alone in my apartment and I was frequently woken by powerful aftershocks.

The next day I managed to meet up with some friends and we decided to stick together in order to pool resources. It was also a way of comforting each other as after that first night I did not want to be alone at any time. We spent a lot of time talking and trying to find out information about what was happening. I didn’t hear about the size of the tsunami or realise the devastation until the Saturday evening when the electricity returned to my apartment (I live next door to a large hospital so the area was a priority) and I was able to go on the internet properly and see some pictures of the coast.

The rest of the week is a bit of a blur in my memory. I went to evacuation shelters for hot food and to use the portaloos there. I collected water from the park where there was a tap that still worked. I queued in line for hours at shops in order to buy some food. I had the BBC earthquake live update website constantly open on my computer, and I was on edge the entire time about the nuclear situation. I paused every time there was another aftershock (there has been more than 1,000 since the quake hit) and waited to see if the nightmare would begin again. I visited a friend who was in hospital. I tried to comfort a Japanese friend whose grandparents had been swept away by the tsunami. I coped.

One thing that will stick with me though is the calm and order that I saw. Everyone queued patiently for food. There was no looting, no riots, and no need for a curfew. People shared what they had, restaurants gave out free food and everyone did what they could to help. If anything good can come out of what happened it will be that the world can learn from the Japanese about how to react with dignity and strength in a disaster.

Six days after the quake I was evacuated from Sendai by the British Embassy. The school where I teach was closed and my supervisor told me I didn’t need to come back until the end of April. Due to the lack of resources and the fact I felt I was taking away food and water from people who needed it more, I decided to leave. From the moment I stepped on the bus I felt relaxed. It was as though I had handed the responsibility for my survival to the embassy staff and I didn’t need to worry about it anymore. The mood on the bus was very jovial and everyone was visibly relaxed.

The embassy did not want to go through Fukushima so the bus took the long way to Tokyo – a 14 hour journey over snowy mountain passes instead of the usual five hours down the motorway. British Red Cross staff on the bus kept us laughing with their bad jokes and the children watched Japanese cartoons on the bus TV. The Embassy offered free flights to the UK but as my parents were in Sydney on holiday when the quake hit I decided to arrange my own flight there. The flight had to go via Hong Kong due to the lack of fuel in Tokyo but on Friday night, a week after the earthquake hit, I left Japan.

In Sydney I struggled to deal with phantom aftershocks, bad dreams and my guilt over leaving my friends and colleagues. I spent a month in Australia with my family trying to relax and come to terms with what had happened. However, while I was scared about going back, I really wanted to help my friends and the city of Sendai to rebuild. Sendai is outside the 80km exclusion zone (recently reduced to 60km) recommended by the British Embassy to protect against radiation from the nuclear plant, and my friends in Sendai advised me that the central part of the city was returning to normality.

I’m now back working in Sendai again. The downtown area where I live and work is almost back to normal although there is still some difficulty getting certain things in the shops, such as milk. The situation on the coast is still very difficult and it will be many years before things can even begin to seem normal there again. Many of the shops have banners saying “Ganbaru Tohoku” or “Ganbaru Nippon”, meaning “Don’t give up Tohoku/Japan”. The TV adverts are only about helping others, pulling together and the strength of Japan to overcome the disaster. The Japanese people have been through so much but they are strong and they will get through this. I am glad to help as Sendai is my home for now, and it will recover.

Emily MacFarlane


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