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.
Ahead of the fourth anniversary I wanted to share some of that experience with you through a series of journal entries and emails I sent at the time. This is the third post in the series.
Cupcake Dresses and Death
It’s been one month since the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of 11 March. The constant rise and fall of the ground beneath my feet makes this hard to believe, particularly when everything around me seems to be moving in slow motion. The scale of the disaster is like an impenetrable fog. It obscures everything, making it impossible to see what progress is actually being made. The only tangible guide is the updated body count published daily in the paper. I read it every day, hoping for a good news story and always end with a bitter taste in my mouth.
People are still living in evacuation centres on two meals a day, and in conditions (freezing temperatures being just one) that have resulted in unnecessary deaths just when everyone thought they had actually survived the worst. Children are still clinging to the hope that parents will come back; writing them letters as they watch their towns be pulled out from beneath the rubble. And the nuclear reactor situation still isn’t under control; having been upgraded to a 7 on a scale of ‘how bad is this really?’, with 7 being: ‘really bloody bad’. It’s now rated alongside Chernobyl.
I think it is the nuclear aspect of the whole scenario that I find most exhausting and worrying. I’m much better at rockets than ticking time bombs. Since that fateful day there have been 960 quakes. You read that correctly. The worst day was the day after, when we had 148.
Our ‘Fukushima melt-down plan’ is an indication of the precarious situation we are in. It consists of making it as far as basement level 3 in our building (B3). Although, admittedly, this does happen in several phases; the first being the complete melt-down of the reactor/s or a significant enough release of radiation with a corresponding wind pattern to make it a clear and present danger (i.e. towards Tokyo). With a moderate wind, we will have 10 hours, give or take a few. Safe to say that this is not an occasion when I view ‘flexibility’ in a plan as a positive attribute. And at times like this the internet does not help. Scaremongering and speculation are rife. There are more images of misunderstood radiation predictions than you could poke a stick at.
In those 10, or thereabouts, hours we are to gather our families, bedding, emergency backpacks, and adequate supplies for 48 hours and make our way to the basement. When I tell Mum this grand plan she asks, for about the hundredth time, when am I coming home. And if I am honest, in the face of potential radiation exposure on a large scale, coupled with constant earthquakes, sometimes I think it would be nice to just jump a plane and fly back to Australia. But postings, like life, aren’t about opting in and out at one’s convenience.
Once ensconced in B3 we shall stay huddled under the flickering lights of a generator-driven power system with our colleagues and families… for the next 48 hours. I have inappropriate images of people writing in their ‘war’ journals or reading old tattered books, whilst others speak in hushed voices so as not to draw the attention of the radiation as it slithers outside the building listening for sounds of life.
Those who arrive late, i.e. after the 10 hour window has closed, will only be permitted to join the herd after they have stripped out of their contaminated clothing, and been hosed down in the pool area. As a stark reminder that this is not a sick joke, boxes with paper robes and slippers are prepositioned outside the entrance to the pool. A high pressure hose is connected to a designated water tank, next to a pair of rubber gloves, mask and goggles. There is clearly some short straw drawing to be done yet.
I flashback to Iraq – Sitting in the basement amongst gym gear, wearing my body armour, waiting for the ‘all clear’ on a car-bomb parked around the corner. I’m entertaining my colleagues by clowning around on a piece of equipment – bench pressing a few kilos as though I am about to hit a world record. My stomach is twisting and turning, death is hissing in my ear, but I’m grunting like I’m going for gold at the olympics. And it’s doing the trick. Everyone is laughing, drowning out the sound of the tick, tick, ticking of our lives.
Back in Tokyo though, the catch in our current plan is that after the 48 hours has passed, if we still haven’t been given the ‘all clear’, then we can technically head back to our apartments regardless… the radiation levels in B3 will have reached the same as those outside. It will either be amongst us, silently leaching the life from our bones, or so depleted that it poses no significant health risk. It will be years before we know.
Never having been one for conformity, I have a completely different plan. Relabelling my apartment as ‘B3’.
There will be no hosing down (other than for fun), my fridge is well stocked with champagne and chocolate, and 48 hours is ample time to re-watch every episode of West Wing. I also have an absolutely gorgeous lavender ‘cupcake’ dress from Review that still hasn’t been worn. I feel like I am living within the confines of an absurdism piece as I convince the decision-makers of the merits of this plan – if not for others, at least for myself. Trust me, you do not want me in the basement. I will become the dissident. The voice of opposing reason. I will rage against the confinement. I will bring my ukulele.
They can do little but agree and caution… Stay away from the windows – check. Turn off the aircon – check. Close all vents and seal with tape – check. Tightly mouthed instructions – I know I am swimming against the tide and causing unnecessary ripples – but it’s my life and the images of Tohoku are telling me not to huddle and cling, but to sip champagne and enjoy. To #bepresent.
** To view images of Tohoku area one month after the disaster see the Boston.com – some of these images are confronting, all are heartbreaking.