Hurry. Hurry. Hurry.

From earthquake to tsunami to volcanic eruption to typhoon to flood, no country in the world is as prepared for a natural disaster as Japan. These events spot the natural history of the archipelago like acne spots a teenager’s face, and the Japanese certainly should be prepared for them, both individually and collectively; both physically and emotionally.
The Japanese government has been in the earthquake predicting business since 1892 when it established the Imperial Earthquake Investigation Committee in response to the Nobi earthquake that struck the Nobi Plain around Gifu the year before. That was the last big one near Nagoya. And it is the strongest inland earthquake ever recorded in Japan. But it was only magnitude 8.0.
Now Japan’s Earthquake Phenomena Observation System—EPOS—is a part of the Japan Meteorological Agency in Tokyo, and its assignment is to protect the Japanese people from the devastation of earthquakes and tsunamis. Not that there is anything they can do to prevent either of these phenomena. All they can do is detect them as early as possible and send out warnings. The unit is manned by five teams of seven employees each, and these teams ordinarily work in rotating shifts, but on March 11, 2011, all the employees will be called in to man the system. Many of them won’t go home for another 72 hours.
EPOS uses the world’s most sophisticated and comprehensive system of multiple networks for monitoring seismic activity in and around the archipelago. Needless to say, it’s a complicated business, because earthquakes are complicated things. They emit several types of waves through both the interior of the earth and along its surface. Primarily, these are classified as body waves and surface waves.
The most obvious of the body waves are S-waves, which cause the earliest trembling and shaking that can be so hard to ignore in an earthquake. S-waves travel through the earth at speeds that vary in accordance with the density and elasticity of the solid medium they travel through. They don’t travel through fluids at all. This means they won’t go through the earth’s fluid outer core. They stop there. S-waves are invariably preceded by another type of wave called P-waves, which travel immensely faster—up to 5,000 meters per second through granite as compared to 3,000 meters per second for S-waves—but go largely unnoticed to any man without his own sophisticated set of equipment. The main task of EPOS is to detect these two types of body waves, analyze them as rapidly and as correctly as possible, and make predictions about the destructive potential of the surface waves that will follow them. And because surface waves travel almost as fast as S-waves, it’s this need for both speed and accuracy that makes the job of predicting earthquakes and tsunamis so difficult. Surface waves don’t wait. When P-waves arrive, S-waves are already on their way. Highly destructive surface waves are right behind them. And once the S-waves arrive, it’s too late for any early warning system to provide much of a warning at all, much less an early one. In predicting earthquakes, every second of seismic activity is an important one.
EPOS has access to hundreds of body wave detecting seismometers throughout Japan, including ones operated by universities, local government agencies, and over 200 it operates itself, and as soon as one of these seismometers begins transmitting evidence of P-waves in its vicinity, the task is to decide as quickly as possible what will follow. On March 11, 2011, the first indication of high amplitude P-waves will arrive from a seismometer in Ishinomaki, on the coast of Miyage Prefecture. It will take EPOS 8.6 seconds to ascertain from that information and corroborating evidence from other seismometers along the coast that a large quake is occurring, and having ascertained that, they will immediately send out notice to the National Police Agency, the airports, the railroad companies, nuclear power plants, local governments and news organizations. Indeed, viewers watching NHK, the public broadcasting company, on TV at 2:46 and 50 seconds on March 11 will see an earthquake warning a mere ten seconds after the earthquake strikes. This will be too late for those areas closest to the epicenter, but quite early, nonetheless. It will appear at almost the same time EPOS will begin receiving reports of tremors from some of the country’s 600 seismic-intensity meters. This is also when EPOS will begin working on their greatest task—to analyze all of this data, establish the epicenter of the quake, its magnitude, and the likelihood of a resultant tsunami. They figure they’ll have three minutes at the outside to get this done accurately. It’s a nearly impossible chore. But depending on the location of the epicenter, its possible for a tsunami to reach Japan’s shores that fast. And the decision will need to be made on the basis of only two minutes worth of data. With the 2011 quake, however, the problem is going to be complicated by the fact that the plates will still be sliding after the first two minutes. Tremors will continue for six minutes. The first set of data will be analyzed by computer even as the earth continues to shake, and within three minutes the epicenter will be pinpointed correctly, the depth will be estimated at an extremely shallow ten kilometers, as opposed to the quake’s actual depth of 32 kilometers, a magnitude of 7.9 will be assigned to the quake, and tsunami warnings will be sent out for the entire eastern coast of Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa. It will take another 20 minutes to pinpoint a more reliable depth, magnitude and fault orientation. By 4:00 pm the magnitude will be bumped up to 8.4, and the concurrent announcement will come with 17 pages of graphs, diagrams and data that EPOS employees will have collated in just 74 minutes. EPOS will generate 17 such documents in the following 72 hours.
On March 13 the magnitude of the quake will be increased to 9.0. But in the mean time there will be hundreds of aftershocks for EPOS to analyze—between 3:00 and 3:30 on March 11 there will be three of them greater than 7.0—and many of these aftershocks will lead to even further tsunami warnings. EPOS will issue a whole barrage of tsunami warnings over the next 22 hours. They won’t start curtailing them till 1:15 on March 12, and during that time very little rescue activity will occur. The survivors will simply have to wait.
Then, while dealing with these aftershocks, EPOS will start receiving sea-level gauge readings at heights their operators will have never encountered before—readings they will have never even considered before—tsunami waves from three to seven meters high will be hitting all over the northeastern coast. Then the gauges will begin to go dead, destroyed by the very waves they are designed to measure. At around 3:25 the area will begin to lose power everywhere, and all in all, 170 sea-level gauges and 55 seismic-intensity meters will go off line. EPOS will have to continue making assessments about the earthquake without many of the tools necessary for doing so. And these assessments will be complicated by a separate earthquake that will strike Nagano Prefecture on March 12, because current technology won’t allow the EPOS to distinguish between the seismic activity caused by separate quakes, and only about a third of the early warnings they send out over this period will be accurate. Needless to say, this will frustrate everybody, especially the rescue workers. Well, the victims too, of course. And, needless to say, the thousands and thousands of survivors who won’t be able to find their loved ones.
No natural disaster in history has been covered as well as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake is going to be. NHK is Japan’s public broadcasting company. It has been in the television broadcasting business since 1953. The acronym is short for Nihon Hoso Kyokai, which not surprisingly translates to Japan Broadcasting Company, and it’s synonymous in Japan with news. It has four domestic TV stations and three radio companies. Its broadcasts reach 50 million households, and it’s obliged under national law to broadcast early warning emergency reports in times of disaster. It will be easily the first company to begin broadcasting tsunami warnings. In fact, it will be on the air with news of the huge earthquake even while its Shibuya studio is still shaking from the tremors.
It will take the company only two seconds from the time they get the warning from EPOS to the time they get it broadcast. Then it will continue broadcasting earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor news 22 hours a day for the next eleven days. All of Japan will be have their attention glued to NHK for the week immediately following the earthquake. Their top rated show for that period will capture a 29.8% rating. That’s almost a third of television watchers in the country.
In spite of some recent scandals, including accusations of embezzlement, profiting from insider information, and yielding to pressure from Japan’s nocuous right-wing politicos to edit an expose on official government and army participation in Japan’s wartime system of forced prostitution, NHK is taken very seriously in times of disaster, and its tsunami warnings will probably save thousands of life.
NHK spends hours preparing and practicing for disaster coverage. It receives immediate notices from EPOS regarding earthquake activity. It has 460 remote cameras set up across the archipelago to facilitate immediate coverage of any catastrophe. It requires a number of anchors to live within a five-minute walk of its Tokyo studios so that they can run to work in the event of an earthquake or other disaster in the capital. Every night after its news broadcast NHK employees are run through a mock disaster drill. Yes. Every night. And they do it at the Osaka studio—and in seven other locations, too—just in case the Tokyo studio goes down completely. It could not possibly be more prepared for what is going to happen here in Tohoku.
Within a minute and a half of receiving the initial warning from EPOS, NHK will have begun live broadcasts on the disaster, and it will have professional cameramen and reporters on the scene recording and broadcasting only minutes after that. It has cameramen and reporters on standby across the nation. There will already be 400 employees in the company’s Morioka, Sendai and Fukushima bureaus when the disaster strikes, and eventually it will assign another 700 to cover the earthquake and its aftermath in Tohoku.
In Sendai, on March 11, 2011, it will put a helicopter team in the air right around 3:00, less than 15 minutes after the earthquake strikes. This will be the last flight approved for take off from Sendai before the airport itself is devastated by a twelve-meter high wave.
NHK neither has nor desires star personalities. Its reporters are trained to be emotionless, featureless, faceless, interchangeable reporters of facts. Indeed, there are hundreds of them and they are interchanged regularly. They appear on television as virtually nameless men and women lacking all personality and passion. This is what the Japanese populace is used to from NHK and what they expect from it. During the weeks following the 2011 disaster NHK announcers will rotate off camera every hour. In a country almost pathologically obsessed with the silly notion of celebrity, none of NHK’s announcers will become household names or personalities.
An article by Chico Harlan in the Washington Post on March 27 will wittily credit NHK for meticulously covering Japan’s triple disaster “with the help of 14 helicopters, 67 broadcasting vans and virtually no adjectives.” NHK announcers, he will write, “do not use certain words that might make a catastrophe sound like a catastrophe.” They are encouraged not to preach panic, and the list of words they’re not allowed to use in covering natural castrophess include “massive” and “severe.” Also, “devastating.” Also, for that matter, “catastrophe.” Harlan will continue, “This makes NHK, at once, the best place to follow a disaster and the strangest.” It’s not strange for the Japanese, however. It’s business as usual. It’s the way things should be. Harada Makoto is the head of NHK’s international planning and broadcasting department. He will say quite frankly, “As a basic rule, we don’t use adjectives, just stick to the facts.” He will call it part of NHK’s mandate to “have a complete separation of fact and opinion.”
Thus the entire nation will be overwhelmed by the obvious panic in the voice of that first airborne reporter literally begging people to run for high ground as the helicopter transmits horrifying scenes of a mountain of water lifting huge planes off the runway at Sendai airport and tossing them around like insignificant sticks in a stream.
In Rikuzen Takata there are huge gates at the harbor, which were designed to close automatically at any indication of an earthquake. They will fail. And 45 of the city’s firemen will rush out to close them by hand. But the gates will still be open and the firemen will still be there when the wave hits. They will not have a chance of survival in the 13-meter high wave that will strike within 35 minutes of the first earthquake warnings. They will all die. All in all, 68 city officials will lose their lives here. That’s about one third of the city’s municipal employees. The mayor will stay at his post at city hall, and he’ll survive, but he’ll lose his wife and his seaside home.
Kayoko Owada will survive too, as will her husband, but when you return to this area three weeks after the earthquake you will not be able to find even the slightest sign of their stone fortress of a home. You’ll be able to find the railroad station only because a twisted street sign pointing to it will happen to remain. You know her house is a short ways north of the station, but when you get to the spot you won’t be able to detect even a hint of it, and in spite of all the destruction you will have seen over the prior few weeks on the internet, on TV and in newspapers; in spite of all the destruction you will have seen over the previous three days in Kamishi and Ofunato, you will be a little surprised that nothing whatsoever of Owada-san’s seemingly indestructible house will remain. You will expect it to be destroyed by water like so many of the houses in Kamaishi and Ofunato, bent over, crumpled and ruined, but you won’t be prepared for its complete and utter absence from the place where it had stood. It will be thoroughly washed and wiped away. You won’t even be able to identify the foundation of it with any certainty.
Yet, sitting at Owada-san’s kitchen table, you’d felt so secure. The entire house had seemed so sturdy, so strong, so solid. The destruction of 2011 will make the memory of her kitchen and the rice balls you watched her make for you there seem surreal, like a dream.
On YouTube you’ll see a video of Owada-san’s house, recorded on March 11, 2011, at the very moment of the tsunami. The title of the video will be Fireman Barely Escapes Tsunami in Rikuzen Takata. It will show a couple of firemen racing away from the harbor area in a truck. Midway, the scene will go completely black, then just as the image appears again, Owada-san’s huge house will become visible on screen at the 4 minute 37 second mark. It will be upside-down. Or rather the camera will be. And as soon as it’s righted, you’ll see the other side of the street and logs stacked up on the grounds of the lumber mill
At the beginning of the video, you’ll hear the firemen strangely laughing as they watch a colleague race away from the wave on a bicycle. The camera will be focused on the wave as it comes over the wall. Then you’ll hear sirens. Then panic. The firemen will begin yelling for people to run. “The water is over the wall,” they’ll scream. “Hurry. Hurry. Hurry.” You’ll see people running up the road to the junior high school. You’ll see a man hurrying along, carrying a kerosene stove. You’ll see people carrying blankets. The firemen will continue pleading for people to hurry to safety. But oddly, along this entire drive from the harbor to the school, you won’t see the fire truck stop to pick up a single person.

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