Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Things You Can (and Can't) Carry with You

During the 18 months we lived in Tokyo, Ren liked to go running late at night. Nowhere else in the world, he argued, could you get all of the sites and sounds of a big city at night without a fear of being mugged. Over the course of our time there, he literally covered the entire Tokyo metropolitan area on foot, eventually running more than 20 miles at a stretch and not returning home until midnight or later.

I loved these quiet nights at home with two sleeping small ones. In fact, I made a lot of progress on my dissertation the nights Ren went running...that is until at some point, I invariably began to wonder what I would do if there was a major earthquake right then. Like I've mentioned in previous posts, anyone who lives in Japan for an extended period of time has been conditioned to expect that a strong quake could occur any time.

At first, my anxiety was just about whether I would be able to singlehandedly strong arm two floppy-bodied sleeping kids down three flights of concrete steps. Then we visited the local disaster preparedness center where we were able to take a ride (for lack of a better way to put it) in their earthquake simulator. We did this with our small kids (Sky was 4 and Pink P 1); after all, they needed to have a sense of what could happen as much as we did.

The simulator not only produced shakes of varying magnitudes, all the way up to a 7 (unless you begged them to stop before getting there), it also reproduced actual earthquakes. The Great Hanshin Earthquake (in Kobe in 1995) was a 6.8 and lasted for 20 seconds, so the simulator not only reproduced 6.8 shaking, but it shook in the same way that the ground shook for that earthquake. Same thing with the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which lasted much longer and reached a magnitude of 7.9.

The simulator only reproduced quakes a fraction of the length of the actual earthquakes, but it was more than enough time to make me realize that I would not be carrying any sleeping kids down three flights of concrete steps when the big one hit. In fact, I would probably not even be standing up. Sustained shaking of that force not only makes it hard to remain vertical and walk, it also makes you feel like you are losing your mind. As if your senses, along with your brain, are being completely dislodged. This is one of the reasons the March 11 quake is so absolutely unfathomable to me. Sustained shaking (some say it lasted at least 5 minutes) at 9.0 or stronger must have been enough to shake everyone in the quake zone from their foundations, literally and figuratively. Even without the tsunami, it was bad.

The other unforgettable aspect of that visit to the disaster preparedness center was the map. See that map at the top of this post? That's an earthquake prediction map which charts the possibility of a major (7.0 or greater) quake hitting in the next 30 years. See that menacing little blood-red spot up on the northeast coast? That's about where the 3/11 quake hit. (Blood red = bad, in case you're wondering). This map doesn't have actual percentages posted, but the one I saw did. And the prediction back in 2009 was that there was a 99% chance of a major quake hitting near that tiny blood-red spot in the next 30 years. And Tokyo was sitting at about 70% chance. Back in 2009, this was scary enough. Now that we know a "major" quake could be a mag 9.0, it's absolutely petrifying. Back in 2009, I could tell myself that the chances were that there wouldn't be a quake while I was there and that even if there was, Japan was more than prepared. In April 2011, I have a harder time convincing myself.

So last night, when a second round of tornadoes shot across the United States, I found it was a lot harder than it used to be to convince myself that the chances were minuscule for a tornado making its way to my little house in my little town. In fact, I found myself compelled to move my two sleeping children to the basement (and to keep a copy of my dissertation on a flash drive around my neck) just in case. My friends in Japan talk about getting used to a "new normal," and they have a heck of a lot more to deal with than I do here in the rural US. Still, it makes me wonder if any of us will ever quite be the same.

No comments: