The earthquake

March 17, 2011 - Urayasu, Japan

Just under a week ago, an earthquake hit Japan, changing the landscape, our safety and the way we look at the place we live and the world around us.

I was at a small branch of my school in Urayasu, Chiba in an area called Hinode. Shin-Urayasu is a town which has been built on land reclaimed from the sea and this was its first test of strength since its development.

We had had an earthquake earlier in the week which had shaken the building we were in and made us all a bit nervous and mindful of the fact that we were living with the risk of a serious earthquake every day. When Friday’s earthquake hit my first thought was “not another one…” but the shaking got stronger and didn’t seem to be stopping. I stepped out of my classroom and saw another teacher standing under a doorframe so I did the same. Still the shaking didn’t stop and the receptionist shouted for us to get out. Luckily we were on the ground floor of the building so this was easily done. I left my jacket, bag and phone inside but grabbed my shoes on the way out. I had difficulty putting them on, despite them being slip-on pumps and had to sit on the floor as they seemed to slide away from under my feet.

I saw a cat running frantically from bush to bush looking for a safe place to hide. The shaking didn’t stop and suddenly the building we had been in cracked away from the pavement around it. As I looked along the road there seemed to be waves rippling down it as if it was made of water. More buildings started to crack away from the pavement and water began to gush out from under them. We had no idea whether it was a damaged water main or the sea claiming back its land. We watched as the buildings including a huge department store across the road seemed to rise up from the roads around them exposing their foundations.

The roads were cracked and flooded and the grassy banks by the side of the road started to dome and then explode with water. The shaking subsided but started again in the first of the many hundreds of aftershocks we’ve experienced since Friday. The water had brought up a large amount of silt with it and the roads and pavements were flooded and thick with dark mud. The buildings had risen by at least 50cm (or more accurately we had sunk).

We realised we couldn’t just stay where we were and Kayoko, the receptionist I was with, went back inside the building briefly to grab our bags and coats. We started walking back towards Shin-Urayasu but as we got to a crossing by a convenience store another powerful aftershock hit. We thought about running to the centre of the road as a man warned us that the glass windows could shatter and fall out of the apartment blocks around us. But the moment we suggested moving to the centre of the crossroads and huge crack opened up in the road and we decided to take our chances on the pavement. We decided to head for a park next to the university on the other side of the road where people seemed to be congregating. There was a grassy hill which elevated us above the flooding (by this point my feet were caked in thick black mud) and where someone was shouting through a megaphone.

The shaking sopped eventually and the advice was to return home if you lived nearby or go into the university building if that wasn’t possible. We walked back to Shin-Urayasu to a friend’s house and stayed there until we felt ready to head home fearful of the damage that might have occurred back on our 6th floor apartment.

Ed had been on the 7th floor of the shopping centre where the main branch of our school is located wen the earthquake struck and said he was thrown from side to side in the corridor while escaping, lights had fallen down and smashed and the teachers’ room was a huge mess with the floor not even visible as everything had fallen out of the bookcases and shelves and even the dividing wall had come loose.

When we returned home it was eerily dark but luckily the electricity was turned back on just as we were going into the building. Our apartment had escaped almost unscathed. In the kitchen there was a bit of a mess on the floor with a couple of smashed jars, a bag of rice which had fallen everywhere but a small mess in comparison which took no more than 20 minutes to clean up. Our apartment is built just on the border of “real” and reclaimed land and for this reason it had suffered so much less damage than the areas where the schools are. We were however without water.

Throughout the night there were more aftershocks, much smaller of course but still terrifying after the day we’d just had.

Watching the news on the internet we realised we were the lucky ones as we saw the devastation which had occurred in the north-east.

As the week went on we hoped for things to return to normal. We cleaned up the teachers’ room at school, which was in utter chaos, and got ready to start normal lessons again. People went back to work, we queued up for water at the water truck, joined in the panic buying of food, drink and batteries as power cuts were announced. We stopped worrying each time we felt the building shake and the risk of another large earthquake decreased as the days went by but the situation at the nuclear plants which had been damaged by the quake grew worse and worse.

Today is Thursday. I’m writing this from a train on the way to Hiroshima, where we’re escaping to for the next 4 days. Many people are leaving Japan or doing what we’re doing and heading further south. When we left we still didn’t have water but otherwise things were starting to feel normal but our school decided to close until further notice due to the risk of radiation and the fears associated with it, as well as the lack of food, water, petrol and transport in the area.

It’s nice to know that I won’t be woken up by any aftershocks tonight and if it feels like the ground is moving, it is definitely my imagination (I often feel like we’re moving, or wake up in the night thinking I felt shaking but when I look around, nothing’s moving.)

At the moment I hope we can return to our home just outside Tokyo on Monday, but if no we’ll have to think about extending our stay in Hiroshima or leaving the country.

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