Monday, March 14, 2011

I'm up at 5:20am and receive a phone call a few minutes later from my assistant supervisor informing me that because of the power cuts the trains might be canceled, and if that's the case I don't have to go to school today (I live about 5 minutes from the local train station, and ride the train to and from school every day). He asks me to phone my co-workers and let them know, and then phone him back to confirm the situation. I phone them around 5:30am and find they're both already up.

I'm exhausted. I lost count after 10 powerful aftershocks woke me up through the night.

I check my phone messages and find a message from a Japanese friend telling me:

"Sorry it's late. Just got the schedule... your area belongs to group one and two! But they don't tell us in detail. You will have two power cuts in three hour periods:

Group 1) 6:20-10:00 and 16:50-20:30
Group 2) 9:20-13:00 and 18:20-22:00"

The first thing I wonder is how I'll stay warm. My apartment has no insulation, all my heaters are electric, and it's pretty cold out. The second thing is what will happen to the food in my fridge. How will grocery stores preserve eggs, meat and dairy?

I get another call from my supervisor around 5:50am telling me all the trains will definitely be canceled, and would I please tell my co-workers that we don't have to go to school today.

There are so many phone calls before sunrise that I don't get a chance to eat. I heat up some leftovers from dinner, and gobble them down. I finish about 10 minutes before the Group 1 power cuts and hop in the shower while there's still pressure. When I finish I fill the tub with water to use throughout the day.

Filling my tub with water before the power cut, Chiba City

At 6:40am, I find the power's still on and conclude I must be in Group 2. A pick up truck is driving around the neighborhood with a loudspeaker telling residents that the trains are canceled.

There are so many aftershocks that standing in one place to brush my teeth or do the dishes makes me nauseous. My world feels like it's constantly swaying. Could also be the adrenaline. My friend said it feels like walking on a ship.

I log onto Facebook and find a helpful notice regarding the power cuts on my news feed. Facebook's been wonderful for staying in touch with people since the earthquake. I read a friend's comment about driving around last night looking for gas and finding lots of closed stations, long cues and rationing. Even if I had a kerosene heater, there wouldn't be enough gas to go around.

Helpful Facebook notice

I plug in my phone and change all the settings to conserve battery life in case another earthquake hits during the power outage. I'm reminded of my experience as a child in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian War - persistent power cuts and 24/7 threat of evacuation with a packed suitcase under my bed, as well as the fear of aerial bombings and tension you could cut with a knife. The American Int'l School I attended also had several bomb threats. The American Embassy and British High Commission evacuated their personnel and a lot of my friends as soon as things got out of hand. Why Canadian Embassy personnel were under voluntary evacuation and why my parents decided to stay is something I don't understand, but it's an interesting parallel.

Some feelings that return again and again are of my impotence to help those tens of thousands of people up north. As a foreign resident in Japan who doesn't speak Japanese or have any specialized skills, I feel useless.

I meet some friends around 10am to pick up some candles and matches for the evening power outage. Leaving my apartment, I pass an endless line of cars edging towards the highway. Most businesses are closed in anticipation of the power cuts, and the few grocery stores that are open have long cues. We hear rumors that Chiba Station has closed and make our way over to see if it's true. It's hard to believe, but it is. We find 85 people waiting in line for buses to Haneda Airport. We speak to a man standing in line who's making his way to Nagano. We're not sure where everyone else is going.

Line at Tesco, Chiba City

Line at local pharmacy, Chiba City

Line for bus to Haneda Airport, Chiba City

Line for bus to Haneda Airport, Chiba City

Chiba Station is closed, Chiba City

Chiba Station is closed, Chiba City

The local mall, Yodobashi Camera, and all the 100yen stores are also closed. We walk to the 24/7 grocers and find lines that stretch the perimeter of the store. Specific food items such as non-perishables and rice, and all the bottled water have already been cleared out, but people seem pretty calm. I buy some ice to keep my vegetables cool during the power outage, and drop it off at home.

Long lines at the grocery store, Chiba City

My co-workers and I have a meeting every Monday at 2:45pm at the Board of Education (BOE) to discuss upcoming events and stay in touch with our supervisor and assistant supervisor. We get together at my friends house at 1pm to discuss what we'd like to talk about at the meeting. Not something we usually do, but we have some pretty serious questions and want to be prepared. We decide to walk into the meeting as dispassionate and unfazed as possible and see what they have to say. Then, if we still have questions, be diplomatic. They play things down like it's just another Monday meeting and mention things should get back to normal by the end of the week, so we move to our questions.

Question: what's happening with our schools? Are they open? What do we do if the trains continue to be canceled?
Answer: They tell us the president of the school board is making decisions one morning at a time. Same deal with Japan Rail (JR) and the trains. They offer to phone us each morning at 6:30am to tell us whether our school is open and the trains are working. If they're not, we spend another day at home.

Question: Our families are very worried about us and think we should return home while we can. Do you think we should leave?
Answer: The situation is unclear, but at this point we don't think it's necessary. Of course, you are free to do as you please.

Question: If it comes to that, will the BOE assist us in leaving the country?
Answer: As of this moment, you must take unpaid leave and pay your own way home. It's possible that the situation will be reassessed when you return to Chiba (should the situation deteriorate in your absence), and that you will be given special (paid) leave, but that is not to be expected.

In the middle of our discussion on the 12th floor of the BOE the conversation goes silent as the building starts to sway. The creaking noises are chilling. Our supervisors carry on with the rest of the meeting like it's another day at the office, and leave slightly perturbed.

It's 4:20pm, and we've just been informed that the coming power cuts which have been threatened all day and effectively shut down the city will finally take place between 4:50 and 8:20pm. We finish the meeting and decide to check out the grocery store downstairs to see how things are doing. It's a little scary - nothing's been restocked since I was last their on Saturday afternoon, and the shelves are looking mighty bare. We decide to eat together tonight, and pick up a few things for pasta.

At 5:00pm the power's still on. We hear a new press release saying that the power outage has been moved again to between 6:20 - 10:00pm. After dinner, we walk out onto the porch to watch the lights go off. It's 6:30pm, and the power's still on. What's going on? We go back inside, make some tea and watch "Memento." An hour into the movie and the building begins to sway. Back to reality. My parents call near the end of the movie, and tell me I should buy a life jacket in case a big earthquake and tsunami hit the Kanto region. I tell them I'm on the second floor of a four story building, I'll be fine. They tell me there were waves in Touhoku that covered a four story hospital.

I head home and get to bed around 11:00pm.

Waiting for the lights to go out, Chiba City


  1. Interesting post! Now maybe you know why your parents decided to stay during the war in Addis! It is not easy to just leave people you care for behind...

  2. zach great stories so far. keep up the blogging. I'm a bit disappointed you haven't mentioned anything about your chaffed nipples yet