My Experience in the Massive Earthquake
in Northern Japan
Written by Yuya Matou,
a staff of Prop Station living in Sendai
April 7, 2011
~The situation at the time of the earthquake~
I was in my room working on my computer when I felt the initial shock of the quake. It was 2:46 PM on March 11th when the most powerful earthquake that I have ever experienced reached me here in Miyagi. My house violently shook up and down and back and forth to the point that I had to struggle to keep from being thrown from my wheelchair.
The shaking subsided after about a minute and a half but before I could breathe a sigh of relief the first of what would turn out to be many strong aftershocks rocked the area again. It was only after the first aftershock that I realized the power had gone completely out. As I surveyed my room it slowly became clear to me the effect the violent shaking had on my belongings. Not only did the quake send my computer, CD player and TV to the floor but books from my bay window shelf were scattered about in places that used to be occupied by my bed and entertainment stand.
Hungry for information I turned to my cell phone’s One Seg TV programs for news of what was happening. When I heard that a massive tsunami warning had been issued I began to realize this was no ordinary earthquake. Deciding to save the precious battery life of my cell I switched off the One Seg TV and listened to the radio for further updates.
~My living environment at the time of the quake~
My room is located on the 2nd floor. The only wheelchair accessible bathroom in my home is located on the same floor and without the electricity needed to power the elevator that I use to get to the first floor. I’m thankful that I was there before the power outage occurred. If I had been on the first floor, the amenities that I require for daily life would have been inaccessible. Thankfully, the house sustained no damage requiring me to evacuate however the anxiety of the battery running out of my reclineable power wheelchair began to creep up inside of me.
~Daily life after the quake~
My first concern after the earthquake was of my brother’s safety. He has the same disability as I and works in Sendai. I wondered whether or not he would be able to return but with the power outage affecting his office location’s area as well he was able to leave as soon as the aftershocks began to subside. Meanwhile my mother began storing the food items from the refrigerator into ice chests to prevent them from spoiling giving us a supply of at least a few days worth of nourishment.
Knowing that once the darkness set in we wouldn’t be able to navigate around the clutter of our strewn about belongings, my parents rearranged as best they could the items to safer areas around the house. Heavy items such as my computer and television turned out to be undamaged and were placed safely out of the way in a corner on the floor. The dishes that did break thankfully remained contained in the cupboard due to safety latches that prevented their doors from swinging open. An old radio cassette player kept us up to date on conditions in the area while I utilized the Disaster Message System offered by NTT DoCoMo to relay to worried friends and relatives of our safety (the regular Dial 171 Disaster Message system was completely disconnected). We finished off a meal as darkness set in and wrapped ourselves in extra blankets in preparation for the cold night ahead.
Day 2 after the quake:
The constant waves of aftershocks made sleep almost impossible. I arose in the morning to find that the water had also been cut off. We still had a small assortment of food items, but no satisfactory containers for storing water. Although doubtful that any would still be available, my parents set off to the hardware store in search of something that would suffice as well as more edibles. As I sat home alone I realized how severely the lack of electricity affects routine comforts. My parents returned shortly after with a few groceries and tanks for storing water. We would finally be able to store a bit of water and thanks to a portable gas stove be able to heat it up for tea and noodles.
Most stores were closed but there were a few that had basic necessities for sale out front if you were willing to wait in line. We were told that electricity would be restored by this day but that turned out to be untrue.
The 3rd and 4th day after the quake:
The small quantity of food and water that we had was quickly dwindling away. From this day on my parents had to go to the grocery store and find a water station on a daily basis. Constantly met with crowds of people at both they were forced to wait in line for hours to obtain the few daily necessities. The fuel situation as well became a serious problem as gas stations remained closed due to the lack of fuel in stock and delay in power restoration.
Mobile phones services remained nonexistent preventing any chance of contact through my cell phone. I receive support through services for people with disabilities such as transportation and physical therapy and had an appointment on the 4th day after the quake to get a visit from my therapist. I didn’t hold my breath for her to arrive believing that the probability of a visit were slim to none but was surprised by a knock at the door in the evening. She hadn’t come on behalf of her regular duty but to check on the well-being of clients in the disaster situation. Her visit brought me comfort as contact to the outside world through telephones was still unavailable. People with disabilities and the elderly living alone are the most prone to being left out in situations like these. I came to realize how significant visits such as these from welfare service providers are for persons with disabilities when a disaster occurs.
On the 4th day after the quake electricity was finally restored however telephone lines, TV, and internet providers were still down. Likewise, the CATV services were still unavailable but just being able to turn on a light or use electric cookers and heating devices was a welcome convenience returned to our daily lives.
From the 5th to 7th day after the quake:
Now that the electricity had returned to our household, the lack of running water was our main inconvenience. I had come to avoid drinking water because although necessary for healthy living, it's limited water supply put its usefulness in other things a priority. On the 5th day CATV services became available and we finally had a chance to watch TV and use the internet. I used this opportunity to send e-mail messages to people at Prop Station and to friends of mine to inform them of my safety.
Being cut-off from the world I didn’t realize how catastrophic this disaster was until we watched TV. We still had to line up for 2 hours to get a loaf of bread but a week after the quake running water had been restored. With a newfound appreciation for the preciousness of the substance, I took a bath for the first time in 7 days.
From the 8th day after the quake till the present:
The residents living in the inland area of Miyagi have slowly begun restoration. We visited my mother’s hometown of Ishinomaki on the 29th of March to survey damage in an area other than ours. The town where she had lived was completely washed away by the tsunami. This was just one of the many towns and villages that had sustained tremendous damage but of whose names were not reported on TV. I realized it would take years to re-establish the town here. The fishing industry makes up a large share of the economy in the coastal areas of Miyagi. Looking at the disaster situation of the ports, fish-processing plants and stores, I was sure that people living in the coastal areas would face a strong uphill battle during the reconstruction process ahead.
Those not directly affected by the tsunami also have been hit with hardships brought on by its occurrence. For instance, the tourist and food-related industries were plagued with secondary damages as people working in these industries have lost their main source of income even though lifelines had recovered. Currently (April 7, 2011), little by little, daily life returns to the inhabitants of my community. Supermarkets have once again begun to slowly be able to supply food and the fuel shortage has been resolved. Sendai has gradually begun to move toward restoration.
~What I have learned~
Since our house itself was not damaged during the quake, we were fortunate to be able to remain living there until lifelines returned. Living in an evacuation center can be extremely difficult even for those without disabilities when all domestic lifelines such as electricity and water are cut off. Evacuation centers generally aren’t equipped to accommodate people with disabilities and force a great inconvenience on those that have them therefore I feel that if their place of residence remains undamaged and safe I think it is reasonable for a person with a disability to stay there.
Another factor in my opinion of this is the elderly and people with disabilities’ low tolerance for colder weather. This earthquake occurred in the month of March which brings with it freezing temperatures. I have learned the importance of taking measures to protect oneself against the cold should a disaster strike. Sleeping bags, warm winter clothing such as thermal socks, gloves, scarves, pocket warmers and hot water bottles are a necessity in a winter emergency situation.
The elderly and people with disabilities can be left extremely vulnerable in the case of a disaster which is why I believe these groups of people should establish and maintain a constant network of contacts in the case of an emergency. I was fortunate enough to receive a visit from my physical therapist and a phone call from a staff member of the Sendai City Izumi Ward Council of Social Welfare because I had these services set up before the earthquake. Had I not done so, I wouldn’t have received these services or contacts therefore I believe it is important for persons living alone to have a contact network such as this activated before an emergency in the case that telephone lines become disconnected.
One last suggestion from my experience is on water use. If water is still available after a disaster, I learned that filling up the bathtub before pipes burst or the water gets cut off could be helpful in storing at least a temporary supply for future use. Even if EcoCute (a domestically used energy efficient electric heat pump, water heating and supply system that uses heat extracted from the air to heat water) becomes unusable due to a power or water outage, water stored in the tub can still be utilized. I will continue to draw upon my experience to prepare for disasters in the future.