11 March 2011 was our one year anniversary in Japan. We've got lots of goodbye parties and end-of-the-year parties to go to this month, so we decided not to do anything special. This was a good idea, as The Ring of Fire gave us something much more memorable than an expensive dinner.
Neither of us have been in a country during a natural disaster. The closest thing to a natural disaster I've experienced was a big ice storm in 1998. So this has been a very interesting experience for us, even though we're 400km south of where the earthquake's epicenter was.
To start with, I've never felt an earthquake last for 2 minutes. Since we're 400km from the epicenter, what we felt was probably only a magnitude 3 (I'm guessing based off of other 3s I've felt since living here) but it lasted for so long. The other earthquakes I've felt have lasted for 10 seconds. Maybe. Sometimes it has taken me the duration of a quake to even recognize that one was happening and I wasn't just dizzy. But this one I had time - lots of time.
I was eating a sandwich in the lunchroom when I felt a train go by (the school I was at is next to a train station) and the building did its usual rumbling. But when the train was gone the building was gently swaying. I thought it might be an earthquake, and after sitting in my chair for 10 seconds trying to figure out if I was just dizzy or not, I got up and stood in the doorway. For 30 seconds. And the building still swayed. I could hear two of the staff members at the front of the school talking, and they didn't sound alarmed, so I walked up.
"Uh, this is an earthquake, right?" I asked. The ladies paused, tilted their heads to the side in consideration of my question, and concluded that yes, the gentle swaying of our building was indeed an earthquake. They started to giggle softly at the strangeness of it; "I thought I was just dizzy," one of them laughed. I started laughing too and said I had thought the same thing. The other lady took out her iPhone and checked a website that reported earthquakes at almost the second they happened. The long time it took for the page to load, and not the way her face sagged when she saw the magnitude of the earthquake at its epicenter, should have been the first indication that maybe this wasn't a small, localized earthquake.
"There was an 8.6 (report at the time: I think it has since been raised to an 8.9) earthquake in the Tohoku area," she said quietly. What had before been humorous laughs at the gentle swaying of the lights and 100kg air conditioner hanging above our lobby, and the silliness of thinking we were just dizzy, turned to somber thoughts about what our office would have looked like after 2 minutes of an 8.6 magnitude earthquake.
Even though I knew the size of the earthquake, the reality of the situation didn't start to take hold until after work when I checked my phone. My shift started at 3:00, just 15 minutes after the earthquake, and lasted until 9:00. When I took my phone out of my pocket it was lit up like a Christmas tree: four missed calls, 6 unread text messages, 4 unread emails, and countless Facebook notifications. My train ride home was spent texting one of my sisters and drafting an email to send to family and friends when I got home.
More troubling than the numerous attempts that were made to contact me was the visible frustration of the Japanese passengers trying to contact people with their cell phones. Almost everyone on every train I've been on is doing something with their cell phone, but it's usually mindless, meant to pass the time. On this night, everyone was focused and intense. I knew that 8.6 magnitude earthquakes were bad, and knew that the number of people trying to get in touch with me was indicative that the aftermath was terrible, but seeing people who live with earthquakes year-round so worried was really disconcerting.
I spent two hours when I got home writing emails, texting, and calling family and friends back home to let them know we were alright. I'm thankful that I'm alive in a time when it's so easy to get in touch with people. Had I not been working, I would have been able to let people know that we were alright before they even woke up back in Canada. At the same time, had cell phones and the internet been down, me not being able to respond promptly to emails and text messages would have been interpreted as a sign that I was not okay. Choose a metaphor to describe the good and bad of instant communication - there is no shortage.