Thursday, March 17, 2011

16 minutes

On March 11, from the time the earthquake struck (2:46 p.m.) until the tsunami raced at 800 kilometers per hour to hit the land  at 3:02 p.m., the Japanese people living near the coast had 16 minutes to act. The quake itself lasted several minutes, so right after it was over, the people on the water’s edge had to decide if there was a risk of a tsunami or not and if yes, get to higher ground. For the elderly, it was already an impossible task. Many people over 70 cannot walk quickly and in this case, they would have had to run quite a long distance from their coastal homes to someplace higher.

I had no idea it happened so quickly.

It takes 16 minutes for me to walk to the center of the little mountain town where I live. That’s also the length of time I need to take a shower, dry my hair and get dressed. If I had been living in one of those Japanese coastal towns, I probably would have held on for dear life when the earthquake struck and when it was over, if things were not in ruins around me, I might have stepped outside to see what was going on with the neighbors. I probably would have asked them if their power was out, since mine undoubtably was. Would I have thought I needed to evacuate? Not unless I had been trained that any quake over 6 was a potential tsunami event, but just two days before there had been one at 7.2 and there was no tsunami warning. And if the power was out, it is unlikely there would have been a radio or TV to give any notice. Even if I could have gotten to my car in time, most of the towns appear to have had at least a 10 minute drive to something higher. I would have perished, as so many did.

If there is a lesson here for me, it is that first of all, I will take earthquakes more seriously now, and more especially if I am somewhere close to an ocean. Secondly, I will continue to stay in good shape so if I have to move quickly in an emergency, I can do so.

Looking at the various YouTube videos and news reports, it is clear that even the reporters were unaware of how powerful and how rapidly the tsunami struck with the first wave - estimated to be at least 23 feet in height- only 16 minutes after the huge quake. An hour and 30 minutes afterwards the news reporter was saying, "You need to evacuate to higher ground now..."and "this situation is very fluid, changing minute by minute," a rather poor choice of words over the video of Sendai airport being inundated.


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