Earthquake

We left the apartment when it was obvious that the quake was bigger than normal. My wife  grabbed the dog, I got our son. In one of those moments of stupidity you sometimes have in a crisis, I wasted time trying to get the door closed when the doorstop blocked it. I ended up ripping off the doorstop (it’s magnetically attached, so no adrenaline-fueled super-strength moment here) and threw it inside. We went down the stairs from our place on the fourth floor and out to the street. We stayed out for about an hour, unsure if aftershocks would be worse. The people on the street were shocked. Most of the time they don’t even notice minor quakes. This one was definitely different.

Fire trucks had scrambled in case of fire or rescue needs and were dispatched to sector coverage. There were two on the corner near our apartment since it’s near a major street. A crowd of people who had evacuated one of the bigger new high-rise apartment buildings was gathered on the corner. Someone said that there were cracks in some of the interior walls, but the outside looked undamaged.

Most places, the damage was slight. The top part of the outer wall of a pachinko parlor around the corner from us collapsed into the street. A small crack ran up the middle of the brick cobblestones. There are a few broken steps outside an older bank building near us.

In our apartment, things were shaken off the shelves. The TV ended up on its back, without a scratch on the screen. I expected to find it broken since it was a gift from my wife’s father and I probably couldn’t justify the expense to replace it. Aftershocks enhanced minor damage. Cracks that were faint in the first quake grew or became more obvious. A few new ones appeared. I’m not sure how safe our building will be in the future. It’s almost 40 years old and wasn’t in great shape to begin with. The rental company said they’ll repair the cosmetic damage, but we’re going to try to ask for a more thorough inspection. We’re looking into moving anyway, just in case.

Aftershocks have blended together into sameness. They have been coming almost every 10–15 minutes. Many of them are from earthquakes in the 5–6 magnitude range. What once would have been remarkable is now not even worthy of mention. I’m still worried that there will be another big quake, closer to where we are. The repeated aftershocks are therefore both comforting and agitating. Small earthquakes release energy that might otherwise build up into a larger quake, but the constant tremblors set our teeth on edge.

My wife said that she’s glad the US is still trying to take care of the world. She wants them to continue to be strong so that they can help in situations like this. She was smiling when she told me that there were 150 rescue personnel coming from the US. They brought dogs, rescue aircraft, and food. The navy has sent 10 ships to help out with rescue operations and patrolling the ocean looking for survivors. Considering that even during the post 9/11 Bush years when we started being more insular and less sympathetic toward the world, we were still willing to send help when there was a disaster, I think there’s no danger that we’ll ever turn our back on places in need.

A few towns have been literally wiped off the map. For people who owned their homes, this is devastating. The best they can hope for is for any mortgage to be paid off by insurance, and start over again. Almost no one has tsunami or earthquake insurance, but most standard insurance will pay off on outstanding loans in case of disaster or head-of-household death. But when you’ve been paying on a 30 year mortgage for a house that no longer there, this might be cold comfort.

I’ve joked before about how much Japan likes to pour concrete on things, a sentiment I’m not alone in sharing. At least now they’ll have a good excuse for throwing large amounts of money at the construction companies to rebuild the areas devastated by the quake and tsunami. Hopefully any bridges they build will actually go somewhere.

The death toll has been relatively low. There are an estimated 3,000 people killed or missing right now. Virtually all of the deaths are from the tsunami. Only a handful of people died as a direct result of the quake. Even more than California, earthquake engineering is part of the standard design criteria. Most buildings held up very well. There are a few videos floating around already showing skyscrapers swaying with the earthquake like trees in a heavy wind.

There have been worries about the nuclear reactors. Apparently, five have been shut down, and one in Fukushima has already had an explosion, which appears to have been caused by hydrogen buildup. Neither the containment building nor the reactor shielding appears to have been breached. There has been a minor radiation release that was part of the process they had to undertake in order to prevent the reactor from becoming even hotter and releasing a greater amount of radiation in an uncontrolled reaction.

Those against nuclear power may point to this as an example of how dangerous nuclear reactors can be. Even with this older design that doesn’t have a gravity-feed cooling system, and that lacks some of the redundancies that lobbyists in the US have imposed on reactor design there, it took one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history, along with enormous tsunami, and repeated large aftershocks to cause a minor nuclear crisis that so far is on the order of the Three Mile Island accident, which resulted in no directly attributable deaths or cancer spikes. About the only thing that hasn’t hit the area is a meteor strike.

I’d say that makes nuclear power pretty damn safe. It would arguably be even safer if they were using a pebble bed reactor or similar passive safety design, but even with a reliance on powered cooling methods, they seem to have been able to avoid a meltdown. Even I—with my Greenie-sympathetic leanings—think this shows the design safety of modern nuclear power plants in a pretty good light.

Hopefully I’ll still think the same in a week. I guess that depends on whether or not they keep the reactor from melting down. If it does melt down, it won’t be in the same league as Chernobyl. That place didn’t have a containment building. Even then there’d be an upside to the situation; they’ll have an excuse to pour more concrete.