The day I feared for my life in an earthquake in Japan

It was a lazy Saturday morning for me back in 2000. I was laying in bed awake on the second floor of my two-storey apartment on the island of Izu-Oshima in Japan.

The volcanic island in the ocean south of Tokyo has about the same population as Revelstoke. It’s known for Mt. Mihara, a gaping active volcano that forms the peak of the island, constantly spewing sulphurous steam into the sky from its active caldera.

Suddenly, as I lay there daydreaming, my old apartment building began shaking violently. The wood creaked and moaned, roof tiles clanked and rattled and things started falling off shelves. You could hear the nails in the framework squeaking loose from the studs.

I can relate to some of the early images from the Mar. 11 earthquake in Japan of stunned people not sure where to go or what to do. I’d been through several earthquakes there, but nothing like this one, nothing that had made me seriously fear for my life.

In the end, I decided to stay in a door frame on the second floor. With all the shaking, I didn’t think I could have walked to get down the very steep, ladder-like stairs without falling. I was also seriously wondering if the building was going to come down. In my split-second reasoning, I figured it would be better to be trapped under just the roof and ceiling rather than get caught under two storeys of debris if I tried to make a run down the stairs and out the door and didn’t make it.

It was over in not too long. Maybe 30 seconds or so. I threw on some clothes and got out of that house. I checked on my next-door neighbour, then headed towards town to my girlfriend’s work to see is she was okay.

When they say the Japanese are prepared and organized for earthquakes, they’re not joking. And none more so than islanders living on an active volcano that had erupted as recently as 1986, causing a full evacuation of the island.

I passed a man on the street.

“There’s been an earthquake,” he said to me in Japanese. The rather obvious observation was well-meaning, something I’d grown accustomed to after living in Japan for years. Foreigners are assumed to be not up to speed on local customs and events. Like everyone else, we’d both been through an exciting, stressful life experience. “Are you okay?” he asked me.

I said I had noticed it and I was fine. He warned me about possible downed power lines and kept going.

Everywhere I went, residents had donned special plastic earthquake helmets — instantly.

In town, authorities and officials were executing their well-rehearsed plans. They had clipboards, and were walking through pre-assigned routes, taking inventory of the damage.

At my girlfriend’s shop, a few things had fallen over and broken, but things were mostly cleaned up when I got there.

In the end, there wasn’t much damage. A landslide blocked a main road, random things fell over and broke, and a few old houses were lightly damaged. Due to careful planning and excellent earthquake building codes, everything was back in order in a few hours.

In Japan, when there’s an earthquake anywhere, the television instantly flashes a ticker across the bottom of all channels telling people the details. Wait for a tsunami warning, it advises. Within seconds or a couple of minutes there is a detailed tsunami evacuation alert if needed.

It’s this kind of preparation that made me hope for the best when I heard of the quake last week. If anyone’s ready for this, it’s the Japanese.

Within minutes I started to see the horrifying images. Over the past couple of days my hopes have been further dashed after seeing the overwhelming devastation. While evacuation plans probably saved tens of thousands across the country, many more stood no chance.

I’ve done the same things others have. Get in touch with friends by email or Facebook, check to see if people are okay. I used to live in Tokyo, Yokohama and in Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu. I don’t know many people from up north, or at least didn’t know they were from the northeastern region.

I’m sorry, but I don’t have much else to say here. I’m saddened by the devastation, death and destruction, like many, and feeling like sharing a story.

For those looking to do something helpful, there are several reputable organizations taking donations for relief efforts.

The Humanitarian Coaltion consists of four aid agencies — CARE Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam-Québec and Save the Children Canada. Donations can be made by telephone at 1-800-464-9154. Website: www.together.ca

The Canadian Red Cross has a Japan Earthquake/Asia-Pacific Tsunami fund. Phone: 1-800-418-1111. Website: www.redcross.ca

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For ourselves in Revelstoke, the event should serve as a reminder that disasters often strike when you least expect. We’re always at risk from wildfires in summer. Chemical spills or fires on the railway have the potential to be severe and deadly. We live below two massive hydroelectric dams. Then there’s always house fires. Do you and your loved ones have a plan if disaster strikes? Are you prepared?

Tips for making a family emergency plan can be found at the federal government’s website, GetPrepared.ca.

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Aaron Orlando is the editor of the Revelstoke Times Review. Contact him at editor@revelstoketimesreview.com.