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18. March 2011

Anita Pratap1 © Anita Pratap

Anita Pratap

Surviving a Catastrophe

SAVE Sister Anita Pratap was in Tokyo at the time of the earthquake. She describes living through Japan's worst disaster in decades, and the current situation in the country

People haven’t fully grasped how terrifyingly powerful Friday’s earthquake was. Imagine a force that is 8,000 times stronger than the New Zealand quake, a force so great that it pushed Japan’s landmass eight feet closer to America, a force that even shook the planet, shifting the earth’s axis by four inches! Yet, in Tokyo, the city of skyscrapers, not one building fell.

Two years in Tokyo makes one rather casual about earthquakes. Mild ones strike every week, some so weak you don’t notice them, others with a slight shake that lasts 10 to 20 seconds. When the March 11 earthquake struck, my initial reaction was “oh well, another earthquake”. But suddenly things turned ominous. The shaking became intense. The floor began moving so much that standing upright became difficult. Our two-storied residence was rattling and shaking as if a giant wicked witch was shaking the earth as if it were a child’s rattle. I was absolutely sure the roof would come clattering down. And what was scary was that the earthquake was going on and on. It just wasn’t stopping. There was the deafening sound of the tectonic plates crashing below one’s feet. The shaking, rumbling and heaving must have gone on for at least two minutes before I realized- “Oh my God, this is the biggie”. When we moved to Tokyo, our Japanese friends had told us: “You are brave to come now. The giant earthquake is 70 years overdue!”

When the shaking finally stopped, I rushed to our terrace to see if the 60 storied building about a kilometer away still stood. I was 100 per cent sure that it would have disappeared from our skyline. I was certain every tall building nearby would have been reduced to a heap of rubble on the ground by this mother of an earthquake. I stared in disbelief. There the Mori Tower stood, the giant, glass-sheathed monster of a building, looking as it always did – a sensational spaceship that had parked itself in our midst. I looked around. Not one window pane in any of the buildings nearby had even cracked! I looked at myself. Not a scratch. I looked at our well-stocked library – not one book had fallen.

I was humbled by human brilliance. Imagine the ingenuity of Japanese earthquake proof technology that had withstood an earthquake that even shook the planet! Japanese technology is expensive, but worth every penny - it makes the difference between life and death.

As I knew this earthquake would be headline news on all TV channels in a matter of minutes, I called my loved ones in Norway, Australia and India to say we had survived a powerful earthquake. Just as well I did. Within half an hour, mobiles and landlines jammed as a stunned world watched an epic tragedy unfold. But amazingly, throughout this ordeal, the internet worked flawlessly. I was able to send and receive emails, make and receive phone calls on Skype. Again, I marveled the genius of technology created by man.

But that quickly changed as I watched in horror television footage of a tsunami caught live. I have never ever been more stunned by anything I have seen in my entire life. The earthquake had struck a meager 130 km from the coast of Japan. So within minutes, a 10 meter high tsunami tore into Japan’s northeast coast at the speed of a jumbo jet, uprooting, crushing, wrecking and tossing around everything that stood in its path - ships, cars, trucks, farmlands, houses, even factories. TV anchors were saying the death toll in the earthquake was about 3 dead. And I was silently screaming at them; “What rubbish are you saying? Are you not watching your own footage of this tsunami? Whole villages have been swept away by this destructive tsunami. This is thousands, maybe tens of thousands people, perishing before our eyes!”

I was humbled by the petrifying power of nature. I have never seen such force before and I hope I never will. The overwhelming feeling I had while watching the tsunami as it crashed in was how utterly powerless we humans are. How pathetic our arrogance. How shallow our ambitions. How utterly silly our material possessions. Nature tossed cars, boats, houses like worthless toys. Possessions that humans obsessed over, slaved a whole lifetime to accumulate, which they envied and yearned to own. Broken, twisted, mangled and cast aside like scrap. In a matter of minutes, prosperous towns and villages reduced to a junkyard.

As I watched the destruction, I couldn’t help but thinking that humankind would be better off returning to their Shinto (Japan’s animist religion), Hindu and pagan roots. We need to resurrect our reverence for nature enshrined in these old religions, but now forgotten in our mindless quest to plunder the planet for our greed and selfish cravings. The emptiness, worthlessness and transience of our new religion – materialism – were all too evident.

Friday March 11, 2.46 is a moment that all of us who were in Tokyo and the other affected areas and who are alive to tell our tales will remember for the rest of our lives. It is like the moment JFK was assassinated or 9/11 happened, remaining etched in our memories forever. This was like all of the world’s worst catastrophes combined together: measuring 9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake was among one of the worst to hit the world, followed by a terrifying tsunami and a rapidly escalating nuclear emergency that seems on the brink of spinning out of control. It is like catastrophic events from Noah’s Great Flood to 9/11, all combined at one time in one place!

Over the past two years I have come to admire many Japanese traits – carefulness, diligence, mindfulness, politeness, caring, honesty, safety standards, punctuality, cleanliness and social ethic. When the earthquake struck, my Japanese friend was trapped on the 37th floor of a skyscraper that was swaying like palm tree. Truly scary! The elevators shut down automatically and all the Japanese walked down the stairs in a calm and orderly fashion. In most other countries, if the earthquake had not killed people, the stampede would have!

I also have to marvel Japan’s disaster preparedness. Japanese authorities conduct regular emergency drills, bring earthquake simulators so we can physically experience the rattling of a size 7 earthquake, and instruct residents to stock plenty of food, medicines and water and expect electricity and water supply to stall for three days. But in Tokyo there has been no disruption. At home we have stocks of everything for a couple of weeks. We have Iodine tablets, masks and anti-radiation suits should a nuclear meltdown and blowout happen. We are now in unchartered nuclear territory, so we really cannot speculate what the outcome will be. The nuclear crisis is very serious, but knowledgeable experts say, it is not apocalyptic. My heart goes out to the heroic technicians battling in the nuclear plant and the people killed and shattered by the deadly tsunami. It would be a greater tragedy if the world forgets the plight of these brave employees who could die or be permanently impaired and the freezing, hungry and yet uncomplaining tsunami survivors whose lives have been ruined forever.

Seven tough days have gone by. But the end is not in sight yet. The aftershocks continue. The nuclear radiation fears intensify. TV channels do what they seem very good at – confuse viewers and aggravate panic. Many foreigners are leaving. I am staying on because I believe my place is beside my husband. And in the streets of Tokyo, the Japanese go about their daily lives, tense, but with their fabled calm and civility intact.


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