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Getting Ready for the Big One

Friday, December 9, 2005 Posted: 12:11 PM JST

Last month I was a member of the panel at the annual Disaster Preparedness Night at the Tokyo American Center. Of the five panel members I was the only one who had survived an earthquake, and as it happens a big one, too --the 1995 quake that struck Kobe and environs--. I noticed there was a lot of interest in my comments, so I thought I'd recap some of them on this site.

These comments are in no particular order. My experience relates to a strong shallow earthquake hitting a heavily urbanized area, in my case M7.2 hitting very close to the city of Kobe. Most cities in Japan offer excellent advice on what to do when a quake strikes. In printed matter and on official sites. The notes below are meant to augment, not replace, this advice.

  • When the earthquake struck I was extremely lucky. I was going to have a very busy schedule that week, so I had just bought a full week's worth of groceries, much of it packaged foods that didn't need refrigeration. The usual advice is to have at least three days of food on hand at any time. I suggest you have close to a week. It will take at least three days before the first emergency supplies arrive, and most people will need them badly.

  • Most roads and train connections were destroyed, jammed or reserved by emergency traffic. Cars became useless or added to the chaos because they made it impossible for emergency traffic to get through. The best way to get around is on foot or by (mountain) bike.

  • Aftershocks are a misnomer. Initially they are just as bad as the original quake. So be prepared for when you get stuck. After the quake carry a small back pack containing gloves, water, food and a simple first aid kit.

  • Always have enough cash on hand to carry you through the first month as you might not be able to access your bank account.

  • At any time, have enough savings for 1 year as you might loose your job and income. Even if you don't you will need the extra cash to pay for lots of unexpected expenses.

  • Most regular phone lines didn't work, but mobile phones could usually be used. However, there won't be electricity to charge your phone. These days there are cheap, and small, solar chargers. Very handy to have one at home. Okinawa based Eco World carries some very cheap ones specifically designed for Japanese mobile phones. Another handy one is the iSun Sport Portable Solar Charger.

  • It was mostly impossible to make calls on a regular landline as the switchboards have been programmed to reserve the lines for emergency communications. However calls to international numbers went through without much trouble.

  • One of the first decision that you will have to make is fight or flight. It completely depends on your personal circumstances and the situation on hand. But if there is serious destruction and you have children, the decision is easy: get out as soon as you can.

  • Right now start your own family site, or a personal blog. Make sure that all your friends and family members know about it. Also tell a good friend or a family member who lives far away from you, how to update the site. These days this is really easy thanks to the wide availability of blogs. As soon as possible after the quake (or any other disaster) contact that person and ask him/her to upload a message saying that you are fine, and where you can be reached. Possibly you might be able to do it yourself, but it is better to be prepared. Having a central location where friends and family can go to check up on you will avoid a lot of worries and stress. And embassies, consulates and aid organizations will be grateful, too. They are always swamped by unneeded phone calls from worried relatives and friends.

  • After the quake, I experienced terrible nightmares. They came when I was just falling asleep. I dreamed that countless hands came for me. They first grabbed my feet, then my legs and moved upward until they reached my neck. By that time I woke up in great fear and, believe it or not, physically in pain. It became impossible to sleep. My brother who is a psychiatrist gave me some excellent advice that helped me through this different period: 1. Every day have a set time that you sit down and think about your disaster experiences, write them down if you can; 2. The rest of the day when thoughts about the disaster creep up, you tell yourself that is for my 6PM (or any other time that you have chosen) disaster session; 3. Use sleeping pills to get some good sleep for up to two times a week. Stop as soon as you can, as these pills are addictive.

  • Be aware of the nearest evacuation center. In Japan these are usually in public buildings, especially schools, but also community centers and such. It is extremely stressful to spend time in an evacuation center, so try to find a hotel or stay with friends or family as soon as you can.

  • Always have a radio with fresh batteries on hand so you can listen to emergency broadcasts. In large cities these will be available in multiple languages, in most cities only in Japanese. You will find this very important because you will not know in which direction you can escape. During a disaster your world shrinks to a small bubble of just a few meters around you. It is very difficult to get accurate information. Most rumors are totally wrong.

  • Electricity: you will possibly be cut off from electricity for an extended period. Avoid candles until you are absolutely sure that all the gas mains have been disconnected and escaped gas has evaporated. Have a flash light near your bed, and another at a central location in your home. Mine was in my office. This was a bad choice because all the book closets came down and I was unable to enter the room and get the flash light.

  • Gas: Get yourself one of those small gas burners with gas canisters used for camping. Being able to eat warm food and drink something hot makes a world of a difference.

  • It took forever to get water back. The biggest problem was the restroom, actually. It uses more than 20 liters each time you flush, while you need to drink only about 2 liters a day. Have a bucket so you can get yourself water from a nearby river or pond for your toilet. Have one or two containers filled with drinking water for personal use. I also bought a portable shower (a big plastic bag with a shower head) which I found extremely helpful during the long months after the quake.

  • After the quake I walked down the stairs with bare feet and in the dark. I only had a coat when I went outside. It was freezing. When it became light and I checked my home, I found glass everywhere. I was lucky that even though I had walked on glass I hadn't hurt myself. When you undress at night keep your clothes near where you sleep instead of being neat and putting them away immediately. Also have slippers nearby.

  • Rescue and Hospital. There won't be any ambulances, taxis or rescue teams. The quake that hit Kobe caused 6,400 dead and more than 25,000 injured. There aren't that many rescue teams, ambulances or taxis in any city in Japan. Besides, most roads are jammed. So get friendly with your neighbors now. They may one day save your life. They will be the ones that dig you out and take you to hospital. Get to know them now.

  • There were a large number of divorces after the Hanshin Awaji Great Earthquake (as the Kobe Quake is officially known). Often husbands ran out of their homes leaving shocked wives and kids behind. Make sure you all know what you expect of family members and partners. Sit down now and ask each other what you expect the other to do after a disaster strikes. What is each person's role and task? Where will you meet? (nearby evacuation center, park, message on family site, etc.) What can you do to prepare?

  • Have you already asked a trusted person to take care of your children if something happens to you? Make sure your kids feel comfortable with this person. Visit him/her/them regularly so they get to know each other well. After the Kobe Quake it was very painful to see the large number of orphaned kids who had to go into an impersonal system. Many are still traumatized now. You can make this terrible experience, that will probably never happen, a lot easier by being prepared.

  • One of the first things I learnt was to look up. What can fall on your head? I still do this now, many years after the quake. I check when walking in unfamiliar areas, and it is the first thing I do when an earthquake strikes. (As a journalist I tend to be in the wrong place quite regularly). Keep your head safe!

  • Most important: large quakes like the ones that struck Tokyo in 1923 and Kobe in 1995 are extremely rare. You will most probably never experience such a quake. But if you do, being prepared may save your life. So be prepared. But don't worry!

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4 comments so far post your own

1 | At 12:50pm on Dec 21 2005, Jonathan Wilson wrote:
Thank you for your wonderful advice! 2005, has mostly been a year of Japan dodging bullets. But a big one could strike at any time. I would add that finding a good routine and sticking to it as much as possible in the midst of the chaos is also a good way to relieve stress.
2 | At 10:27am on Dec 27 2005, Martin wrote:
The NGO I work for, Japan Offspring Fund, is concerned about a major earthquake at Hamaoka, south west of Tokyo. There are five nuclear reactors that were built in the early 1970s. We have published some advice on what to do in case there is damage and radioactivity is released, reaching Tokyo. A good face mask is one way to avoid getting exposure.


Anyway, your advice is very good, and clarifies some points I have been wondering about, such as access to bank accounts.
3 | At 06:03pm on Aug 20 2006, Kjeld Duits wrote:
One thing that I have recently learned is that you can check if the area where you live has a stable surface.

Some neighborhoods are built on previous waterways. These kind of places tend to magnify seismic waves, so it is easier for buildings to come down. It is fairly easy to find out if you live in such an area. Names related to water --or places where water accumulates-- are one giveaway. For example names containing 'gawa' (river), 'kawa' (river), 'ike' (pond), 'tani' (valley), 'tsu' (port)' etc.

Another sign is when telephone or lightpoles in your street do not stand straight. They should be at a 90% angle to the surface. A crooked pole is a clear sign that the surface is not stable. If this worries you, move to another area.

Another thing is to make sure that you live in a building that was built after 1981, when the new building code was revised. It became a lot stricter. The majority of the buildings that came down after the quake in Kobe and surroundings were built before 1981!

Don't worry, and enjoy life!
4 | At 07:00pm on Aug 20 2006, Alex wrote:
Again, very interesting information and advice, including that last comment. There is a lot of stuff I'll take to heart, having recently arrived to Fujinomiya, at the base of Mount Fuji. And nice to hear advice from someone who has survived a 'big one.'
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