Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bracing For a Tsunami in Japan: a Cautionary Tale

Featured in Lattitudes and Attitudes magazine, July 2011 p. 78

Ginowan Marina
            You’ve heard the stories and seen all the pictures of the devastation in Japan in the aftermath of the big earthquake and tsunami off Sendai, Japan. This is a story of one American sailor’s experience in an area of Japan that missed the physical effects but is still reeling from the psychological effects of the big tsunami.

            In the afternoon of Friday March 11, 2011, I was sitting on my boat in Okinawa, Japan. I was supposed to go sailing this weekend with my friends Rick and Maggie who were stationed here with the U.S. Marines. We were supposed to meet at 5pm but I arrived an hour earlier to prepare. When I first drove into the parking lot of Ginowan Marina, on the west coast of Okinawa, I thought there seemed to be an odd commotion of people hanging around, but I really didn’t think anything of it and went down to the boat. As I walked down the docks I noticed a few people putting out extra lines and fenders on their boats and vaguely wondered, is there a storm coming? As I got the boat ready to sail for the weekend, I had some time so I went up by the marina office to get a can of coffee. As I walked up I met another expat friend, Clyde who said, “Hey did you hear there was an earthquake and we’re on alert for a tsunami?” He said it half with a snicker, like yeah we’ve been through this drill before. As Clyde warned me, it was then that I realized that there were fire trucks and police cars driving up and down the street, announcing to people that they must evacuate. People around the marina were also starting to shuffle around more purposefully and many were leaving.
            People in Japan know that this island country sits on a fault line and gets earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis regularly. They always seem to happen somewhere else though, and never do that much damage. Even so, the Japanese people are amazingly well prepared and even if there was any damage it would be repaired the next day. Just last year, in fact there was an earthquake somewhere in Japan and we had a tsunami warning in Okinawa. They closed the marina all day and told us we had to evacuate, which was a big inconvenience since I was in the middle of painting. Last year when the time came for the tsunami to hit, my curiosity got the best of me and I sneaked in past the guards and waited off by the seawall, with my camera to watch. When the time came when it was supposed to hit, there was not even a ripple on the water and I was quite disappointed, to be honest. I was sure the same thing would happen this time. Tsunami, big deal. I sort of hoped it would come, wouldn’t that be interesting! I got my camera ready again this time.
            Sometime after 5pm, when my friends were supposed to meet me to talk about our sailing trip and also about the time the tsunami was supposed to hit Okinawa, I was hanging out on my boat, looking at the water with camera in hand. It was oddly quiet on the docks, when my phone rang. It was a very bad connection on the phone, with the antenna bars showing full service, but we weren’t able to connect. Just to check my phone, I tried calling a few friends, but with no luck. I wondered, did I forgot to pay my cell phone bill? Later, I would learn that as a result of the disaster, cell phone service throughout all of Japan was disrupted. Finally quite awhile later, my friend Maggie was finally able to get through and told me frantically, “I’m so sorry Greg, we have to cancel. I don’t even know what’s going on but Rick just got called for duty this weekend. I guess this tsunami really is a big deal.” Rick, I would later learn would be part of the US military’s Operation Tomodachi humanitarian relief operations.
            Disappointed that my sailing trip was cancelled and a bit lonely being the only person at the marina, I left and then learned on TV with everyone else about what had just happened. One of the biggest natural disasters in our lifetimes had just occurred, with tens of thousands of lives ended and entire cities erased in a matter of minutes by Mother Nature’s unforgiving fury. Words can’t describe what we’ve all seen in the news by now. It’s shocking to see what an earthquake and tsunami like this can do to the one country in the world most prepared to deal with something like this. What I thought was almost as shocking was watching a YouTube video of Santa Cruz harbor in California, that saw the tsunami wave wreak havoc- several thousand miles away- destroying docks, sinking a few boats and damaging several others. I still don’t quite understand why Okinawa was spared, with the computer models showing that we should have experienced something at least comparable to California.
            Looking back on it, the emergency personnel ordering residents to evacuate weren’t just going through the motions. The people who left the marina weren’t just following orders. They were smart. I don’t mean this to sound insensitive, but I have to wonder how many of the 20,000 or so people who died from the tsunami, did so while standing on the seawall with their cameras? Because I know that with my prior attitude, I’m quite convinced that if I was in Sendai, I would not be alive today because I know I would’ve been the idiot to stay behind to watch and take pictures.

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