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the earthquake (1 of 2)

March 16, 2011

Five days have passed since the earthquake, and I am only just now getting around to posting my actual experience on that day. Truth be told, I was still in too much shock immediately after the quake to write anything coherent, and it has taken me a few days to actually get this post written and coherent enough to publish. So here is a basic report of the quake from my perspective, as well a glimpse into the situation in Tokyo immediately after. Forgive me if it is a bit long and disjointed.

Japan is generally known for having a lot of earthquakes, but in reality the number than I have felt directly is less than I was led to expect before arriving here 5 years ago. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the strict building codes and amazing infrastructure of Tokyo, but many of the smaller earthquakes we experience go entirely unnoticed, and those that we do feel are usually just composed of a few seconds to a minute of gentle rocking or swaying. When an earthquake is strong enough to actually feel, it’s pretty common to get messages and emails from friends and acquaintances announcing “earthquake!” and asking if you felt it.

A few days prior to the earthquake, we had a noticeable tremor while I was at work. As usual, when it happened everyone looked up from their desks with that “is it just me or do you feel it too?” expression on, waited for it to pass, and then went back to work.

Friday’s earthquake started out pretty much the same.

It struck at 2:46 pm, after everyone had had a chance to settle back into work after lunch, and at first the reaction was identical to the one we had a few days prior. We all looked up at each other, and there were a few quiet queries of “Jishin?” (earthquake?) heard from around the office. Unlike the previous one, however, instead of passing, the gentle rocking began to increase. At first it was slow, but it began to increase more and more as the seconds passed. I don’t have much of a sense of timing any more, but I’d say about 10-15 seconds into it we agreed that it was time to get out of the building. I grabbed my iPhone from my desk and we all moved quickly towards the exit.

My office is on the 3rd floor of our building, so getting down the stairs was not as bad as I’ve heard from others who were higher up (Eric was on the 20th floor of his building), but it was still a bit tricky with the shaking. Without any verbal agreement we headed straight for the park across the street, which seemed like the obvious best place to gather while we waited out the shaking. While running over I sent the oh so detailed message “BAD” to Alexa and Eric, and then opened up Twitter to see what was being said.

It looked something like this:

The shaking continued for what felt like forever. I learned after the fact that the main quake of 1 minute 40 seconds was quickly followed up by two successive large quakes, and that the overall shaking lasted approximately 5 minutes, but it seemed longer than that at the time. At some point during it all we realized that our boss had not fled the building with us, and was probably up at his desk attempting to work through the shaking. Eventually he showed up, but when he did it was with printouts so he could continue to review the documents he had been working on before the earthquake hit.

Shortly after that the aftershocks started up.

At first we didn’t really know what was going and had no real way of understanding the magnitude of the quake itself. There was talk of how it was definitely the biggest one any of us had been in and that work was shot for the rest of the day.. but that it couldn’t have been ‘The Big One’ we had been told countless times to expect.

I was able to stay up to date with what was happening elsewhere through Twitter, but most of it was jumbled and unconfirmed. Our first real realization that this might be BAD came when the reports started coming in that the quake was actually centered in Sendai, 300km north of Tokyo. I had the presence of mind around this time to send a tweet to Alexa asking her to call my family and let them know we were okay, figuring by that point it would be better to wake them up on weeknight than risk having them wake up to the news reports.

Most of us hadn’t thought to grab our jackets on the way out and it was quite cold, so at some point a few quick trips were made to get them. One of my coworkers who lives within walking distance of the office actually went home to check his apartment while we were waiting as well. He returned with some pretty alarming pictures of his belongings tossed all about and smashed. Up until that point I hadn’t even stopped to consider what the quake might have done to our apartment, but afterwards I was convinced I would be going home to a pit of ruin.

I’m not entirely sure how long we stayed in the park, but it was quite a while. We were among the first to make it there, but the entire time we remained after that there was a constant stream of people arriving from surrounding buildings and areas, until there were probably close to 300-500 people gathered around, looking dazed.

Eventually we decided to venture back up to the office to check out the situation. Our building seemed almost entirely unaffected by the quake, other than some new cracks and fallen plaster in the stairwell. We quickly gathered up our stuff, and then set about making sure all of the computer monitors were down flat on the desks and the power to the entire place was shut off. Another sizable aftershock hit while we were up there working, and I decided to make my exit a little bit before everyone else.

I waited downstairs until my coworkers Hayden and Shaki came down, and then together we went to check out the situation at the station. We already knew the trains would not be running, as they are designed to stop automatically in the event of an earthquake, but we were curious to see what was up nonetheless. I predicted that the trains would be out of operation for the rest of the day, and I turned out to be mostly correct.

In addition to the trains on the Yamanote line being entirely stopped, the staff had roped off the entire station with caution tape, and there were a large number of dazed people standing around outside looking unsure of what to do next. After taking a few pictures Shaki and I parted ways with Hayden, who lives in the opposite direction, and headed back towards the office.

Along the way we got our first actual view of the news coverage of the earthquake and tsunami via a TV screen in the front window of a cell phone retailer. It was pretty hard to believe the images were real, and we did not stay long before continuing on our way.


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