Disasters abound

Typhoons, volcanos and earthquakes, Oh my!

Natural disasters know no boundaries; all peoples in all geographic areas are subject to nature’s wrath in one form or another. Japan, however, seems particularly star-crossed. Pretty much any type of disaster you can come up with strikes this country with alarming frequency. In fact, I am writing this post as a massive typhoon is sweeping up from the Pacific on a collision course with Tokyo. The shape of the Japanese archipelago and the typical movement pattern of typhoons means that any direct hit on the country is almost guaranteed to affect a majority of the population, and Typhoon Phanfone is no exception. Oh, and this will be the fourth typhoon to strike just this year.

While the damage from flying debris, storm surge and flooding is always severe, the deadliest aspect of a hurricane in Japan is something that doesn’t happen in the southeastern U.S.: landslides. In a country of 125 million which is about 70% mountainous, there is no choice but to build and develop on mountainous terrain. Despite extensive infrastructure to strengthen hillsides and funnel off rainfall, slides still occur on a regular basis even during normal levels of rainfall. Typhoons have the potential to bring so much rain that even a reinforced area can become unstable. Just this August a typhoon brought record rainfall to Hiroshima in western Japan, resulting in 36 deaths.

Typhoon Phanfone is coming right on the heels of another natural disaster. Everyone knows the tallest and most famous volcano in Japan, Mount Fuji, but the somewhat lesser-known second-tallest volcano, Mount Ontake, just erupted a week ago. It is among the “100 Famous” mountains of Japan, so selected for their elevation, uniqueness and history. As such, it is a popular destination for mountain climbers and many were caught in the rain of ash and rock, or smothered by poisonous volcanic gas, when the eruption began shortly before noon last Saturday. The death toll stands at 50, with 16 still missing. Adding insult to injury, the search for the remaining people must be halted due to the typhoon, and the risk of landslides is increased due to the buildup of volcanic ash.

In terms of raw destructive power, the mother of all natural disasters has to be the earthquake. Japan has a long and tortured history of earthquakes and the tsunami that they can unleash. In fact, as I learned in the second lecture of my course on the financial system, an earthquake is even partially to blame for a Japanese financial crisis that occurred in the 1920s. The last major earthquake is recent enough to still be in everyone’s consciousness–the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. I was actually living in Japan at the time, and experienced it firsthand.

My earthquake story

In March of 2011 I was in the U.S. Navy, stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington based out of Yokosuka, Japan. In less than six months I would complete my contractual obligation and be discharged from the military, so during the week of March 11th I was attending a “transition assistance” course that provided information and guidance on returning to civilian life. We finished class early on Friday, so I went home around noon. I ate a big plate of curry rice for lunch, and promptly fell asleep for a nice afternoon nap.

I awoke a couple hours later to a steady rocking motion, strong but not violent. I immediately knew it was an earthquake, but it felt quite different than the many minor tremors I had felt since moving to Japan. I had no trouble walking about the house, and there was no danger of anything falling or breaking. I stepped outside into the street and took a look around, but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary aside from a few other people standing in the street looking similarly curious. The shaking continued for several minutes, which was another major departure from the previous quakes I had felt.

I went back inside and attempted to turn on the TV but discovered that the power was out. Instead I passed the time by reading a book, and after a couple more hours it began to get dark. The power had not been restored yet, and I was starting to get a bit anxious. I was expecting my girlfriend to come home from work around five-thirty but by six she hadn’t shown up, which added to my nervous energy. Going for a walk seemed like a good way to calm my nerves, so I grabbed a flashlight, left a note for my girlfriend and set out.

My neighborhood was situated at the foot of a steep hill, and at the top of the hill was an old quarry that had been turned into a rock climbing park. There was also a small observation tower that commanded a decent view of the entire Tokyo bay area, and I thought it would be interesting to look out and see how far this power outage extended. I made my way up to the top, and took in the view. The lights were still on in Yokohama, about 10 km to the north, and I could still see the skyline of Tokyo 40km away to the northeast. However, much of the area around my house, and a huge swath of area to the west, was completely dark. Oddly enough, the boundary of the power outage ran right down the middle of my neighborhood. A friend of mine who lived in the same neighborhood was on the electrified side of the line, so I thought it might be wise to spend the evening at his place if the outage persisted.

Upon returning home I found my girlfriend, who proceeded to tell me the exhausting story of how she got home from work. Pretty much every train line had stopped running, and so most people faced an evening commute by car or by foot. Unfortunately, since the roads in Japan are essentially a secondary mode of transportation compared to trains, the influx of vehicle traffic clogged almost every major thoroughfare in the entire Tokyo metropolitan area. She had hitched a ride from a coworker but they got caught in the traffic jam about halfway home, so she had to walk the remainder. Fortunately for her, the office was only a few kilometers away from our house, but later we heard some horror stories from her friends about walking all night to get out of Tokyo and back home.

We wandered over to my friend’s house, cracked open a couple beers, and watched the news to see what was going on. It was at this time that reports began to surface that indicated the true magnitude of the damage in northeast Japan. My girlfriend’s father had been working on his farm in Iwate prefecture, and once she realized that it was right in the line of the tsunami, she began to worry. Eventually she was able to contact her mother that evening, and learned to her dismay that they had not heard from her father yet. At around ten o’clock we heard that power had been restored to our side of the neighborhood, and ventured back home. It was, however, a restless night.

The rest of the weekend was spent glued to the TV, watching endless footage showing the extent of the devastation from the tsunami, as well as the situation at the Fukushima nuclear reactor that was spiraling out of control. I was still on active duty, of course, and I figured it was only a matter of time until my ship was ordered to head out to sea and escape the potential nuclear fallout if things got much worse. My girlfriend scoured online forums looking for any indication that her father had been accounted for. Evacuation camps set up in the affected area had signboards with the names of evacuees, and kindred souls with cell phone connections had been taking photos of these lists and posting them online. It seemed like a futile search, but miraculously she found a photo with her father’s name by midday Sunday. We later learned that he had been only minutes away from being swept up in the rising waters when the tsunami struck.

The calm after the storm

By mid-afternoon the typhoon has passed, and it’s now bright and sunny, as though the storm mopped up all the clouds along with it and dragged them out into the ocean. That certainly was not the case with the earthquake and tsunami three years ago. Even today there are still residents of northeast Japan living in temporary housing, and a large chunk of land around the destroyed reactor is deemed uninhabitable. But life goes on, and Japan is still the third-largest economy in the world and known globally for its exports, both industrial and cultural. And no typhoon, volcano or even earthquake is going to stop them.