March 12, 2011
The Great Miyagi Earthquake of 2011
On Friday, as usual, a group of us from work went out to Beacon, a favorite lunch place. Lunch was great, a nice filling burger, as usual. Then back to work for the afternoon. At about three o'clock sometime (amazingly, I feel like I should know exactly when this started, but I do not) I started to feel some minor tremors. We have those frequently in Tokyo, and had had a few in the previous days. I checked with my co-workers to make sure it wasn't just me (when a loaded-down cart goes down the nearby hallway, it can shake the floor in a way that feel similar to a very minor earthquake) and they commented that they felt it too. Usually we would just sit and wait things out, but this one kept building. Usually these things start out as small vertical fluxuations as the ground moves up and down. This time, the vertical bumps started to get larger, and then started to change into a swaying motion. That is when we knew it was getting bad. We got under our desks - which I am not really sure would help in a ceiling collapse, but would probably be better than not being under the desk - and started to wait. The earthquake now was clearly a swaying motion. Perhaps the ground was moving up and down, but the building itself started to sway. We are on the 16th floor. The shaking went on for maybe five minutes. I really don't have a good sense of the time, but it went on for a very long time.
The building itself felt like a boat, swaying forward about three meters, then back, then perhaps to the left, then to the right. It literally felt like we were on a boat in rough seas. I didn't see out the window, so I had no real frame of reference, but the movement was amazing, and very unsettling. Our friends who have a very wide window view said the movement was sickening, you could see the entire building move, and move a lot. Our shelves fell. Other things fell. I was glad to be under my desk, in case the shelving fell my way. It didn't.
The swaying finally started to slow down. I checked my laptop, grabbed my stuff together, and led some of the guys down the stairwell. The stairs were littered with plaster, I assume from the walls of the swaying building. Our building was completed sometime in the 70's, very old by Japanese standards. I think it is rated for a stronger earthquake, but it was still unsettling. I would have preferred to be in a newer building. I'm curious to see how my friend at Google in Mori Tower faired.
We exited the building to the area around the tower. There were some small aftershocks. We were warned to stay away from the building in case of falling glass. That is a good warning, until you realize that there are skyscrapers all over Tokyo. Smaller building are likely less well designed for earthquakes. We were probably safer inside the tower than outside if another large earthquake struck, but that swaying feeling is just so unsettling that I think a lot of people just wanted to get outside, myself included. There was a lot of checking around, trying to see who was still inside, who was outside. Everyone was ok, and after a while the company president announced that people who could go home should go home.
That itself was quite a difficulty. You see, none of the mass transit systems were running. Everyone here uses mass transit. I live about 10km from work, and usually bike to work. Today, of all days, I decided not to bike since I was sore from playing basketball the previous night. I decided instead to take the train. That means I had no easy way home, except 10km isn't really all that far. So I started to walk home. I had my GPS watch, and also unusually decided to bring in my camera today (perhaps thought I would walk around Shibuya at night and take some pictures.) Looking back, I really should have headed into the Shibuya city center to see what things looked like, but I was more concerned with getting home and making sure that Risa was safe. I sent her an email earlier, but knew that networks would be overloaded. I did eventually hear from her, she was fine, but still at work (at Disneyland.) Satisfied that my family was ok, I set out to head home. Before doing that though, I snapped a few pictures of the people around the office. I was also wearing my Amazon Japan hard hat the entire time, and asked a group from the Merchant@ team to model their beautiful headgear for me.
I set up my GPS watch and headed home. All told, it took 1:54 minutes, 9km, and 620 calories. On the way though, I took a few pictures. First, let me just say that for the most part, the Tokyo that I know did not suffer major damage. I heard that one building, the Kudan Kaikan, close to where I used to work, had a portion of the roof collapse and there were some injuries. Otherwise there was nothing major that I knew of (I learned of some other things later) - I was listening to one-seg TV for a lot of the time I was waiting outside the building trying to get in touch with Risa. On the walk home, there was no major structural damage either. This is Tokyo though, up north near the epicenter the damage was horrific, and on the news they were talking about a Tsunami that was coming.
So, I set out walking. See the link for the map of where I walked, but basically it was a two hour walk that I knew fairly well from riding it on a bike every day. On the here are some interesting things I saw.
People taking refuge at a temple
Waiting for a phone
More phone lines
Graduation ceremony interrupted
Very close to work there is a small temple hidden off the beaten path. There were lots of people there taking refuge. When you think about it, one of the few places in Tokyo that isn't high density living, working, or shopping spaces are temples. They have small buildings and some open grounds. A good place to go when you want to get away from large buildings. You can just see a whole bunch of blue hard hats in the background of people all from the same company presumably.
Walking on, you started to see people lining up for pay phones. The cell infrastructure was overwhelmed of course. I got a few emails out, but voice calls were just impossible. I also started to see people lining up for buses. Note that these early lines are short. An hour later the lines for phones and bus stops were huge.
Near Ebisu station there was a group of girls in Kimono for a Graduation Ceremony. That must have been a rude interruption to their ceremony. They were waiting for a friend who was apparently across the street near Ebisu station. I was curious what the mass transit situation was (my cell phone tv was telling me that no trains were running) so I swung by the station. Indeed, no trains were running.
The station was full of people, but the gates were close and the signs all said "Under Preparation". Walking out towards home there were some stores with tvs, and those got a lot of attention. People were intent on finding news, but all the news was saying is that there was an earthquake, a tsunami is coming, and where people should be evacuating. My cell phone has a digital tv tuner, so I would check occasionally with what was going on. Tokyo at least didn't come out of it too bad.
Massive crowds at Gotanda
Beam looks like it is in bad shape
Bent support beam
Taking down scaffolding
More comfortable on the first floor
Somewhere to go, no way to get there
Another closed station
Over closer to Gotanda, much later, there were massive crowds at Gotanda station waiting for buses. I don't think they are going to get anywhere anytime soon. I kept walking, only about 3 kilometers from home now. I passed some large apartment complexes which had set up temporary chairs for people that lived there who I presume didn't like being up high in the building. I could understand their feelings. I think they probably are safer inside the building that outside, but maybe the ground floor would sway less than the higher floors. That is probably a good idea, and I might take that route in the future myself. There is one tunnel I have to take that looked a bit damaged. As I walked up to it, it made a horrible noise. Still, seemed ok, so I went through. I'm curious whether that will be repaired in coming days. There were also some construction workers taking down scaffolding. I would not have wanted to be in their shoes; there were still aftershocks and that scaffolding did not look very safe.
Closer to home near Aomono Yokocho, I finally started seeing buses with people in them. Lots of people in them. Going slowly. Traffic was just jammed by this time. Anyone that could drive was. I bet taxis were charging extra.
Walking by Aomono Yokocho more people were waiting for the trains to start running. The station was also closed. By this point, I was pretty close to home. My feet were killing me, my shoulders were sore from carrying my heavy backpack and laptop, and it was getting cold. On the way home I stopped by Aeon, the local supermarket. They were starting to run out of stuff. I bought some simple things for dinner, and headed home. At home, things were fine, but the elevators were out of action. So I had a 14 floor hike up the stairs before getting back to the apartment. The most amazing thing is that I only noticed one or two things fallen over in our place. Our building was built two years ago, and is supposed to be very safe in earthquakes. The place was a mess, but that is just because I haven't cleaned recently; you would not have known that there was an earthquake just looking at the place.
At home, I turned on the TV and spent the next few hours trying to get in touch with friends (everyone is ok) and sending out some email and facebook updates. I didn't feel tired, so I started playing Mass Effect (1, a game I've been playing lately.) There were lots of small aftershock earthquakes. I lost count. More than ten. More than twenty probably. They kept happening, although our building handled them like a champ. None of this crazy boat stuff (I am really curious how the main earthquake moved the building, but I'm happy not to find out.) I watched a lot of tv. I tried to find out what my wife was doing. She said she was ok, but that she would not be able to come home. I stayed up until 6am. I also finished Mass Effect - very good game. I think that kept me up, but I also just was still unsettled, and didn't feel like sleeping.
I finally got to sleep at 6am, and now on Saturday have written this us. Right now Risa came home. Here is how her day played out: after the earthquake at Disneyland lots of people were motion sick from the earthquake, and there were people that were scared and with minor injuries. She works as a nurse there, and all the nurses were busy. They worked through the night and she got off at 11am Saturday morning (after starting a 10am shift on Friday morning) and then had to walk to the Rinkai line Shinkiba station, about 6km. She is going to hop on the computer for a bit and then go to sleep.
So to sum up: we are safe, our house is fine. We have enough food for today and tomorrow, and I anticipate that most of Tokyo will be relatively back to normal by then. I'm worried and concerned about northern Japan, and I have a few friends that are stuck outside of Tokyo due to the transit system shutdown, but everything seems fine. It should be an interesting few days. All sorts of things are coming out now, the major one being concern over some nuclear reactors and possible problems there, but I think Japan will be able to get through this.
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