This was already posted at giantrobot.com on April 11, but as the two month anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami is coming closer it’s still newsworthy, in my opinion. Michael Arias writes about his trips to Tohoku after the catastrophe:
Today is the one-month anniversary of the Tohoku quake and tsunami disaster, but my flat is still rattling from aftershocks (I counted three today, but I’m sure there were more). Last weekend was actually the first I’ve spent at home in Tokyo since March 11, when the big one hit. Much of the last month I’ve been up north, looking for my in-laws, ferrying supplies to relief organizations, and being a guide for foreign television crews looking to get close to ground zero in the first days after the disaster.
The first of those trips began only a day after the initial quake. At 3:45 PM I’d received a fragmented text from a brother-in-law living up north: Fleeing. After that, it was impossible to get though to anyone in Tohoku via landline, mobile phone, or internet. But the television reports during the first hours, though incomplete or contradictory, were painting an increasingly bleak picture. Onagawa, Ishinomaki, Tagajo, Kesennuma, Minami Sanriku, all the nice little northern towns I’d visited so many times over the last ten years, were now listed as among the worst hit by the tsunami. The extent of damage to the Fukushima and Onagawa nuclear plants was as yet unclear, but I remembered years ago joking with my Onagawa in-laws about the disaster warning intercom installed in their kitchen. This little box would periodically sound a test alarm, like the radio broadcasts I grew up hearing: “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System…” (perhaps, given the Japanese context, more like an air-raid warning).
I got the call from Christian Storms (real name) around midnight. A crew from Channel 7 Australia needed a “fixer” for a trip to Tohoku. A fixer’s job typically involves interpreting and translating, driving and navigating, arranging interviews, and securing official clearance to shoot. Not my usual gig, but Christian knew I had family in the affected areas and thought I might be a good fit for the Aussie expedition. Twelve hours later, having bluffed our way through the police barricade at the Tohoku Expressway onramp, the four fellows from Channel 7 and I were driving northbound in Christian’s eight-seater Toyota HiAce van.
I had a vague plan to make a stop at the house of one of my brothers-in-law, in Tagajo, a Sendai suburb, and drop off a Hefty bag of hastily gathered (in retrospect, quite useless) supplies. But our real goal was to get north of Fukushima Prefecture, and up into Miyagi’s Oshika Peninsula, where some of the worst tsunami damage had been reported. We’d been told of an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team that had flown in on a military transport from New South Wales, and hoped to track them down and deploy with them, but we really didn’t know where we’d end up or what we’d find.
Over the next three days, I guided the Aussies from one wrecked seaside town to another, stopping to pick up interviews or shoot an on-camera report, making detours to visit local refugee centers and ask about my in-laws, scrounge gasoline, and sleep on floors. My notes of the trip read like passages from the Divine Comedy, where Dante leads Virgil through the nine circles of hell. (I think the Taoists give hell eighteen layers, but who’s counting?)