The typhoon that roared through Hokkaido on Tuesday night didn’t help. The rain softened the land, and then the earthquake (M6.7 according to the Japan Times here) struck at 3:08 a.m. Thursday morning in the town of Atsuma (according to the Japan Meteorological Agency), a little town of about 4,500 people, and about 180 km (110 miles) away by good road from me.
The liquified soil meant bad news for the houses and their occupants that were engulfed in landslides, and the homes built on fill that sunk into the ground. If you were writing a historical about this, you’d be able to use some of the same details, although because building codes and standards were non-existent or at least nowhere near the standards of modern Japan, the damage to shelter would have been more widespread. In our bedroom on the second floor, the sway of the building was enough to wake us up from a sound sleep. With shoddier construction, we could have had the roof cave in.
But in these modern days, only a few houses were damaged, considering the energy unleashed by the earthquake. The real problem for most of us was losing the electric grid.
The Tomato-Atsuma Thermal Plant lost all three of its coal-fired generators, according to Reuters, and caused an imbalance to the power grid of Hokkaido as a whole. Nearly 3 million homes were without power within milliseconds of the first earthquake, and as far away as Nemuro, which is almost 400 km (250 miles) from Atsuma by car. About 45 hours later, power was restored to my house out in the country. As of this writing, Hokkaido Shimbun reports that about 10,000 homes are still without power in 11 municipalities.
So, for most of us, we still had a roof over our heads, but we didn’t have electricity to fuel our daily lives. I’m not sure if you can really imagine what that means unless you’ve been through it. My work had us come in if we didn’t want to take a vacation day. Driving through the streets of a city without power and without school and work is eerie. The stoplights are blank, staring black eyes. The motorists who thought they needed to be on the road were most courteous, though. People reverted to the right of way as a matter of course, sometimes being overly polite and waving the other car through, rights or no rights. Better polite than dead. An earthquake reminds you of that pretty quickly.
Traffic was light, so I arrived at my work in good time . . . until I remembered in the parking lot that the elevators were probably out. Eight floors and much panting later, I was at the morning meeting with the other teacher who came in, and all the regular employees of the board of education.
We were fortunate in the weather. It was a warm day, but a cool breeze blew through the open window. No air conditioning, of course, and the only fans were handheld ones. Through that open window, we heard the ambulances punctuate the morning and afternoon. With no power, most of the clinics were closed, so the emergency room was the primary source of medical attention. Of course the hospitals had back-up generators. The one near my work was belching out smoke, according to my co-worker who could see that far out the window. But it was closed to non-emergency patients. The parking lot was bare.
I’d brought my lunch. My co-worker had walked to work, and decided to go back home for lunch. He picked up some noodles from one of the convenience stores that was actually open. He said the shelves were bare; no perishables like sandwiches and boxed rice lunches. Drinks were mostly of the fruity, sugary, carbonated type. The bottled water was gone by 1 p.m. No power meant nobody was cooking, nobody was baking. The supply chain was well and truly disrupted.
Of course, the stores were closed. And most of the gas stations, as well. When I went to check on my daughter in her lodgings, there was a long line for gas that stretched at least three city blocks, and down two different streets. I looked at my fuel gauge, and was thankful that my hybrid car had half a tank left – at least three or four trips to the city left.
My daughter was very happy to see me. With the traffic lights out, she didn’t want to walk anywhere to study (not that anywhere was open, really), so she stayed in her room and read during the daylight. She had a solar lantern ready for the evening, and her little box of emergency rations. She hadn’t replaced the cookies that she had liberated from the stash, but her landlady had gas, water and daylight to cook supper, so she was going to be OK. She wished she had a radio. The cell phone’s battery was a worry, but she had a back-up battery. However, by 5 p.m., the cell service itself was very unreliable.
I went home. We have a dairy farm, and during the last blackout (from a typhoon in the early 2000s, if I remember right), our generator came in awfully handy. My husband had bought another one since then, so we cooked dinner in the kitchen by the light of a single bulb, and had hot water for showers. I re-charged my computer and my phone, but even with power, we were in an information black-out of sorts. No TV, of course, and because the cell service was unreliable, I couldn’t look up anything on the internet. We did have a radio, broadcasting the same bad news over and over, and speculating on what could be done and would be done. All in Japanese, of course. I went to bed early.
The next day was a little better. Cell service was better in the morning – not completely reliable, but I could find a little news, and let my family and friends know what was going on. Some traffic lights were working around my work – and I planned my route carefully so I wouldn’t be trapped trying to cross traffic on the busiest roads. City Hall had power, and the elevators were working again, so no mountain-climbing to the eighth floor. My thighs weren’t screaming, but they were aching in thankful throbs to the restoration of power. The café on the 11th floor was back in business with a special menu that nodded to the restrictions that the blackout placed on them. That area was also open to the public for phone-charging. By this time, some 30 hours after the blackout’s beginning, many phone companies and individual businesses were offering phone-charging services. In the City Hall, there must have been 50 extension cords with four, six, eight outlets each on tables. People from all walks of life were up there, charging their phones and waiting quietly with other people, listening to the big TV in the corner.
Friday night, my daughter and I returned to the Showa Era of Japan back home: the lone swinging naked bulb in the kitchen, and we sat with my in-laws in the dark around an LED lantern and the old transistor radio my uncle-in-law had brought over while the vegetable curry simmered in the background and the rice cooked on the stove-top. We donned LED cables over our shoulders to feed the kitties in the other house, the one without electricity. Again, we went to bed early.
Around 12:30 in the morning, I woke up. The red charging light on my cell phone was on. And my CPAP machine was making gentle whooshing sounds into my pillow. The power was back on! My husband rushed to the barn to make arrangements, while I fitted the CPAP mask on my face, and texted friends and family with the good news. Somehow, the cell service was fine in the dark hours of the morning – every sane person must have been sleeping or otherwise getting ready for the next day ahead.
Today, Saturday, there are still a few glitches. My dentist’s power was completely restored, but his fiber optic phone line was wonky. All the traffic lights were back on my way to town, but the large supermarkets were closed in the morning. The home improvement stores were open, but had posted a long list of “sold-out goods” on the white board in front of the store. D batteries, gone, but a good assortment of expensive AA and AAA batteries could be had, along with a few C batteries. No water, of course.
More convenience stores were open, and I visited two. Again, no baked goods, sandwiches or boxed lunches. No ice cream, of course. All the water was gone, but a few carbonated brands loomed on the almost-empty shelves. Coca-Cola is going to outlive the cockroaches, I swear. One of the stores had a nice selection of grated cabbage and daikon radish packaged in the right size for a family of four.
We were extremely lucky to have water and gas for the most part in Tokachi. The biggest shock was how dependent our lifestyles are on electricity. I am so pleased to report that civilization did not collapse after 24 hours with easy power, but I think all of us will be more aware of how much we are dependent upon electricity, and a society that can work together well enough to provide such a luxury and convenience. Who knows how it will affect the future of our island? Who knows how it will affect the fiction of our writers? I hope it will make us deeper thinkers, and kinder writers.