On March 11, 2011 I was in Tokyo when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck – magnitude 9 – devastating a country and people I love deeply. I volunteered to deploy into the disaster area with colleagues to help in whatever way we could. What I experienced changed my life.
Over the next few weeks, and ahead of the fourth anniversary, I thought I’d share some of that experience with you through a series of journal entries and emails I sent at the time.
Trying to Find My Way Back
Leaving Tohoku is anything but straight forward. It turns out there is debate about the veracity of the 20km Japanese exclusion zone around Fukushima nuclear power plant versus the 30km which the US has declared, already revised down from an 80km evacuation zone. No one is confident that the extent of the damage to the nuclear power plant has been reported accurately. Which leaves us with a choice of going through an exclusion zone and getting home sometime early tomorrow morning, while risking exposure to radiation, or going via Nagano, which could take several days, and not knowing if there will be fuel available on the way or what condition the roads are in. We are already past exhausted. I can count the hours of sleep I’ve had in the last week on two hands… and still have fingers to spare.
When we drove into the region I hadn’t really given much thought to the road home or the exclusion zones, which were only just being established. They were in force, to varying degrees, but our understanding of the extent of the disaster at Fukushima was still evolving, while the imperative to get in and do the job was clear. We had been issued with dosimeters, but I didn’t really expect to use them. Climbing into our little blue minivan at 4am in Tokyo they were nothing more than cool gadgets that clipped neatly to the front of our winter jackets.
In my backpack I was carrying a carton of cigarettes for a colleague who had been in Sendai since the day after the disaster; locating Australians and helping them get home. In my over-wired brain I layered images of she and I sitting in the trenches, my knees drawn up, a cigarette dangling between my fingers, face smeared with mud. Images pulled from movies and books, never my own, and at complete odds with this experience. In the front pocket of my backpack was a letter for another colleague; a goodbye from his wife who had been evacuated with all other non-essential personnel and would be gone by the time he returned. Passing over that letter I came to understand that grief and sorrow isn’t just reserved for separation through death. It stalks us quietly, bumping into us at unexpected moments.
Dawn that morning had been deceptively beautiful, clear skies and Fuji-san, capped in snow, rising majestically behind us as we left Tokyo. It didn’t take long before we were pulled under by the eerily quiet roads, with once straight, flat stretches now rising and falling like a roller-coaster. Gaping cracks challenging our navigation as the van, an insignificant speck on six lanes of black, chewed up the kilometres between Tokyo and disaster. We stopped in a few towns, refuelling and stretching our legs, sometimes passing lines stretching for more than 3kms; worried faces peering out at us as locals waited for fuel that was being pumped by hand. We dozed fitfully when we could, blinking back to reality each time the van lurched over yet another tear in the road. The world was cold and grey, the road seemingly endless.
By the time we arrived our shoes and clothing were already registering radiation and our dosimeters were active. My hiking shoes got a good hard scrub, but the reality was they would prove to be completely inadequate trudging around the disaster site anyway. Instead I would opt to wear men’s wellingtons with chux dish-clothes stuffed into the toes to keep them in place. They would serve me well as I stood amongst twisted metal translating for the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Taskforce as they pulled the small, fragile body of a Japanese woman from her crumpled car. She was already gone, but she had not gone peacefully and her last emotions were etched so deeply on her face that for weeks I would close my eyes and see her.
I can’t fathom taking a new, longer route to get home. None of us can.
We unanimously sign away our rights to compensation on hastily written documents, that we’re hoping aren’t worth the paper they are written on, and opt for driving through that 10km difference of opinion. I’ve lost count of how many days it’s been now with the ground rolling under my feet, of watching more photos of loved ones tacked up on community centre notice boards and silently fretting as the numbers on my personal dosimeter climb incrementally. There are cut-off marks for members of the USAR Taskforce, if they go over a certain radiation reading they can not work on another such site for twelve months. My brain can’t comprehend the idea of ‘another such site’. Even without my rising reading, I’m not in a hurry to repeat this experience – ever. My soul feels as though it has a taken a beating. Even the act of the USAR donating all its supplies to the local hospital and community centre hadn’t eased the bruised feeling deep inside of me.
As we leave the town where we have been based and the people we have come to know, we pass miles of nothing, flattened by waters that reach more miles inland, before sucking everything back out to sea. And then, finally, a house, small and run down, held together by the sheer will of its occupants. Followed by another. And another. A few have experienced soft collapses, with the roof having slid off almost gently, bearing it and half the house into the ground. These are the lives of people living on the edge of the disaster and it occurs to me that they have already been forgotten. The sheer scale of this disaster will takes years to fully comprehend and address.
There is conversation in the car, largely designed to keep me alert and focussed as I drive back to Tokyo. I can hear my voice, weaving appropriately into the discussion, but in my mind I am lost in the heartache of an old man wrapped in a red blanket and a young woman who was trying to make it home. Lost in the montage of faces captured in small, grainy photos pinned to walls around town and at community gathering points. Graduation photos, family portraits, children wearing kimonos at festivals, grandparents, babies… smiling at the camera, moments frozen in a better time. All missing. All loved.
As we finally enter the exclusion zone we receive the agreed call over our radio – “actions on”. We turn off the heating, close the vents, make sure the windows as sealed and increase our speed. I pull my flimsy paper mask over my mouth and nose, and hold my breath. All is silent, until it isn’t. A high pitched beeping emerges from the back seat of the car.
It takes me a while to realise what it is, as my passenger reaches over and snags the bag holding the geiger counter. It is beeping angrily at us, spiking between 20-35. And then my own dosimeter joins the chorus. Its small, sharp tones pleading with me to change course, get out of here, move away from danger. I can see the number climbing, 7… 8.5… 9… 11… I try humour… “well, I always wanted a nuclear family”. A pause, and then from my passenger, “at least we will be able to see in the dark.” We start a discussion about super-powers. Talking over the fear.
I call ahead to the convoy we are in, which is creeping along the highway, unaware of the panic building in my car. No one else is picking up any readings, we are clearly in a dodgy, porous vehicle. Short straw. I think of all the people still living here – eating the food, drinking the water, assured that it is safe.
Imperative number one – get to the other side of this 15km cut through of the exclusion zone as quickly as possible.
I radio back that we will meet the convoy at the next truck stop. And then with desolation and death trying to keep up with me as I floor it, a new understanding emerges: Even though I am heading home it will take much longer to find my way back. Even longer for the Japanese.