Monday, March 14, 2011

After the earthquake

I was sitting in my apartment, organizing files on my computer, when the earthquake hit. I didn't feel a thing. Not even a tremor.

Kyoto is far away from the earthquake's epicenter so we were oblivious to the violent shaking and the speeding wall of water that would devastate northern Japan within a matter of minutes.

The earthquake and tsunami came and went unnoticed in Kyoto. It wasn't until friends from Canada starting posting on my Facebook wall, asking if I was still alive, that I knew something horrible had happened.

I turned on the TV for the first time in a week. Every channel was showing the same thing -- wall-to-wall coverage of the earthquake and the tsunami. Someone in a helicopter had managed to shoot footage of the tsunami as it roared inland. Ten metres high and moving at the speed of an airplane, the tsunami devoured everything in its path. We saw houses ripped from their foundations, cars bobbing along like toys, utility poles snapping like sticks. We saw people in offices ducking for cover as the shaking shelves toppled and crashed to the floor. The same videos played on a loop throughout the day. At that point, there wasn't much information. The full extent of the damage was unknown. But it was obvious the earthquake was bad.

During the next few days, the news got more and more grim. Hearing the frequently updated death toll is the worst part. The numbers just keep getting higher. The official death toll now stands at nearly 2,000. But the last report I read said at least 10,000 people are missing from a town that was virtually wiped off the map by the tsunami.

Life was so normal and so ordinary and then one tectonic plate moves under another and everything is suddenly turned upside down.

I can't imagine how terrifying it must have been.

Stories from the survivors are now starting to trickle in. A reporter interviewed a young Japanese woman who survived the tsunami. She had been holding her daughter's hand but lost her grip when the water rushed in. She hasn't seen her daughter since. The woman told the reporter that she saved herself but couldn't save her daughter. It's horrible and heartbreaking.

But here in Kyoto, life goes on. You wouldn't even know anything had happened. People are working, shopping and just generally going about their daily lives. I feel so far removed from the tragedy and yet so deeply affected by it. Japan is my second home and it hurts to know that so many people here are suffering.

I want to do something to help but I feel useless and powerless. I donated money but it doesn't feel like enough. I want to go up there and help dig through the rubble. But I know I can't do that. I'd just be in the way. If everyone headed up north, it would be a logistical nightmare. We need to make room for the professionals -- the doctors, the nurses, the soldiers, the search and rescue teams, the journalists, the people actually trained in disaster response. The last thing these places need right now is an influx of people with good intentions and no skills.

And yet, in the midst of all of this horror, Japanese people remain polite and civil. There is no looting. There is no shouting or pushing in the long line-ups for food, water and gas. Two nuclear power plants are on the brink of blowing up but no one is panicking. Everyone appears calm and orderly, pulling together for the common good. It's an inspiring thing to see and my friend Mark MacKinnon, a journalist with the Globe and Mail, captures the stoicism well.

For now, the best thing the rest of us can do is donate money.

The Japanese Red Cross, the Canadian Red Cross and the American Red Cross are all accepting donations.

Google has set up an excellent 2011 Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami crisis response site.

I don't know what else to say or do. Even though I didn't suffer through the earthquake, I still feel shaken up by it. It's just such a blunt reminder that life is unfair and death is around every corner. Things can go from good to bad at any moment. You can be holding your daughter's hand one minute and have it ripped away by a tsunami the next minute. It's just so fast, so uncontrollable and so unpredictable. It could happen to any of us at any time.

My heart goes out to all of the victims and all of their families.

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