14:46, Friday March 11, 2011: Massive Earthquake
15:36, Saturday March 12, 2011: Hydrogen explosion at the First Reactor
11:01, Monday March 14, 2011: Hydrogen Explosion at the Third reactor
March 11, 2011
The Great East Japan Earthquake
Yuichiro Sato from Namie Town
(President of residents’ association at Miyashiro Temporary Housing Area, Fukushima City)
I’m Sato from Miyashiro Temporary Housing Area. It’s already been a year since the massive earthquake of March 11, 2011, followed by explosion of the nuclear power plant, nuclear fallout, and involuntary evacuation. If this had just been a natural disaster, I think we would have been back in Namie, our home town. It makes me really angry every time when I think; only if there were no nuclear power plants, if only there were no nuclear fallouts. It’s unbearable to wonder how long, how many years would we have to wait until we would be able to return, or would we be able to return at all? We have the responsibility to preserve our hometown and pass it on to our descendants. We cannot destroy our village, our town, our prefecture and also the Japanese people with the nuclear power plants we built. It’s up to the people who live in the villages, towns and prefectures where nuclear plants are located to stop or restart nuclear power plants.
The Great East Japan Earthquake: March 11, 2011
On March 11, 2011, I woke up as usual and went to work. I was a shuttle bus driver. That day I had a three-hour shift in the morning and a three-hour shift in the evening, with a long lunch break in between. I always went home during the break. I thought I was going to end my day with my evening shift. During the lunch break, I was at home watching television and suddenly at 14:46, an Earthquake Early Warning flashed on the TV screen. I quickly turned off the kerosene stove and the TV. Just as I started to go down the stairs, the quake struck. My body was swaying left to right, hitting the walls and I couldn’t keep my feet on the steps. It was impossible to walk downstairs. I fell on my back but I manage to reach the first floor. When I went to the 8-mat tatami room where my ninety-year-old mother- in-law was resting, I found her in a frenzy to escape. She looked like she was doing the Awa Dance, with her body swaying back to forth, left to right, and her arms waving. I caught her hands, lifted her on my back and tried to go outdoors, but it was difficult. It was shaking so hard; with cabinets and cupboards falling over and onto the floor. As we exited the house, the roof beam and roof tiles came falling down. Concrete block walls were crumbling. It was very dangerous. I looked around and saw roads breaking up, houses collapsing, it was just like hell. Once the quake subsided, I pulled the car out from the garage and took my mother-in-law to a safe place. I returned and called on the elderly in the neighborhood. Fortunately, everybody was safe.
Then came the aftershocks. They were terrible, too. Noises were coming out of the houses. Something was falling inside. Dusk came, but there were no lights because of the blackout. I turned on the engine of my car, which I parked outside, and switched on the TV. It was then I learned the extent of the disaster. The earthquake was magnitude 9.0. I saw the tsunami rolling over the seawalls and crushing over houses, cars and people. The water swept towns away. I learned the gravity of the disaster from the TV and felt the terror once again.
Later there was commotion around me. The television was showing the devastation at the coastal area and Ukedo Port. Everything was destroyed: automobiles, houses and the seashore. There were reports of deaths. Many people were entering the local gymnasium that served as evacuation shelter. Residents were arriving at schools. It was horrible.
It became completely dark, but the blackout, hunger and fear of aftershocks kept us from sleeping. Going back in the house was out of question, so we decided to rest in our car until the next morning. I think it was 6:15 on March 12, although lack of sleep, fear and fatigue prevented me from thinking clearly. The town’s loudspeakers started to sound, “Emergency! Emergency! Please evacuate!” Without knowing what was going on, I gathered my family into the car, but as soon as we reached the national highway, the traffic was completely jammed. What would normally take half an hour, took us three hours before we finally reached the evacuation center of Tsushima High School. The gymnasium at Tsushima High School was packed to the limit with people of Namie. I tried to reach my siblings and relatives with my cell phone, but couldn’t get through because of poor reception. There was absolutely no outside contact. Without access to any information, our belief that our social system would give us a sense of security and safety, crumbled on March 12, 2011.
I didn’t know at that time, but some people said they had heard a loud explosion at 15:36 from the southeast of Tsushima High School. Among the evacuees, there were different groups of people: those who had some information, others who did not, and others who were just whispering among themselves. Almost half of Namie’s residents were at the evacuation shelter. Without any information, we were totally unaware that radiation resulting from the hydrogen explosion was flowing directly to where we were. There was no radiation alert issued by our Town, nor was there any from the Prefecture. We had evacuated, but we were not prepared for anything other than a normal situation. We simply did not know.
We received a rice ball the size of a baby’s fist for dinner. Most of us at the evacuation shelter hadn’t eaten since the evening of March 11. We couldn’t. People inside the shelter were made to go outside and wait in line for a small rice ball. As we waited outside, I suppose radiation kept falling on us. It was invisible, we didn’t feel anything, and we had no fear or worry. We would never know how much radiation we were exposed to at that time. The area around Tsushima High School was still covered with snow. It was cold in the evening. We had no clothes to change, and there were only a few stoves to keep warm. To keep out the cold, people wrapped themselves up with newspapers or spread out sheets of cardboard on the floor. Still the cold inside the gymnasium was intense. It was freezing.
I barely slept when the morning came. The gymnasium had been packed when I went to sleep but now, there were open spaces. I learned the reason why once I went out the door; the newspapers had been delivered. And, the lead story on that newspaper was the hydrogen explosion at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 12. At last, I grasped what was going on. The power plant had exploded, and the radioactive plume was spreading towards Tsushima, where more than half of Namie’s residents had gathered, and towards Iitate. Anxiety spread among the evacuees on March 13, but still there was no accurate information. We didn’t know what to do, nobody told us what to do.
Gradually evacuees, started to leave on their own accord and headed towards Fukushima City. For those of us who remained, no accurate information, no advice was given. People still had to go outside to receive meals, and to relieve themselves because lavatories were out of order. We were almost out of fuel. On March 14, there was a hydrogen explosion at the Unit 3 reactor of the Nuclear Plant. Newspapers were now delivered to the gymnasium, and most of us devoured the news. Little by little, we learned what was happening, but we still thought we were safe because the power plant was more than 10 km away. The number of evacuees kept dwindling.
On the morning of March 15, The Town issued a directive to evacuate Tsushima. The plan was to go to Nihonmatsu City. They said Nihonmatsu was already full of evacuees from Namie, so they were not sure whether we could evacuate there, stay there, or even have food available there. At any rate, since the evacuation directive was out, they insisted that we follow it. We were told to evacuate by car or by bus, but that no pets were allowed on the bus. Because we had a pet and our car had some gasoline, and if going to Nihonmatsu couldn’t guarantee a place for us there, we thought we might as well call on our relatives in Fukushima City. I asked my wife and my mother-in-law whether they were ready to bear the hardship of getting stuck if we ran out of gasoline along the way. They hung their heads in silence. Our pet was a member of our family; we just couldn’t leave it behind. I tried to call our relative in Fukushima to inform them that we were coming, but there was still no reception. We had no choice but to go without informing them. We didn’t expect the gasoline to last, but the road was downhill at many places and the mileage was good, so we arrived at Fukushima City safely. As soon as we reached the City, our mobile reception recovered, and we were able to check on the safety of our siblings and relatives. My older brother’s twenty-five-year-old daughter had been missing since March 11. Without delay, we visited our relatives and told them what happened up to that day. We asked them of the situation in Namie, and once again became keenly aware of how terrible the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident were. We stayed at our relatives’ for about a month. I am truly grateful they vacated a room for us. Even though our relatives’ house suffered damage from the earthquake, they offered us meals, allowed us to take baths, and gave us kerosene for heating. Words cannot describe how grateful we are. We then moved to Shiki No Sato in Inawashiro [a hotel used as an evacuation shelter in the center of Fukushima Prefecture]. The three of us and our dog moved there on April 11, and stayed for about five months. At last we moved to Miyashiro Temporary Housing Area, where we live now.
When I look back over the past year, what I can say as someone who went through the disaster is that we should always keep vital items on hand, in case of emergency. Firstly, we need food, water, radio, toilet paper, toiletries, cash, credit cards, Also, we should always try to maintain a full tank in the car, and have a spare can ready, if possible. Flashlights and mobile phones are essential and they are very helpful when you travel at night. Try to keep these items in one place which is accessible during an emergency. Secondly, we need to prepare our home for earthquakes. Secure cabinets and furniture with straps to wall studs. Keep dangerous items away from your head when you go to bed. I’d also like to recommend: securing roof tiles so they won’t fall, protecting your head when you exit your house, and staying away from concrete block walls and gates. Protecting yourself is most important; but in case something happens to you, having an ID with you is critical. My brother’s missing daughter was found two weeks later in a car. But the body was so badly damaged that her identity could only be established only by her driver’s license.
We, the residents of Namie are enduring lifelong hardships, not merely because of a natural disaster; but because the myth of nuclear power plant safety has been destroyed by human error. The radiation from the nuclear power plant is causing damage, not only to the communities where these plants are located, but to Fukushima Prefecture, and also to all of Japan as well. They say the hydrogen explosion at Fukushima Daiichi was caused by the earthquake and tsunami, and they also say the scale of damage was unpredictable, but does not ‘safe’ mean being prepared for contingencies? Without the hydrogen explosion and the radiation fallout, we could have done more to save the 184 people who died because of the tsunami. Our local police and fire fighters were out rescuing survivors. They worked hard and saved lives one by one. Rescue workers say they could certainly have saved more lives, if the hydrogen explosion at 15:36, Saturday March 12, had not occurred. Town leaders also said they had waited until the very last minute to issue an evacuation directive to the rescue workers. I heard that they fought back their tears as they gave the directive to stop the search and to evacuated.
The nuclear accident has forced the entire population out of Namie. We do not know when we’ll be able to return. It’s hard to wait without knowing when the evacuation will end. It’s an evacuation caused not by a natural disaster, but by radiation leakage from the nuclear power plant. Younger people couldn’t be sure if they would want to return or not. It would be harder for them to decide if they have small children. As for the elderly, they would want to return as early as possible, or at the very least, during their lifetime. Life is really hard for every resident of Namie.
It has been 40 years since Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has been built. All this time, the Town and the Prefecture have been receiving subsidies from Tokyo Electric Power Company. Did they spend the money only to build public facilities? How did they spend the money? Have they ever thought about the possibility of an accident and used the money to study how to deal with radiation leakage and decontamination process? These thoughts make me furious. I was born 58 years ago in Namie and thought I would live out my life in my hometown. But, the nuclear accident changed my job, my plans and my entire life. It forced us out of our hometown and made us live in temporary housing in an unfamiliar place. I’m fed up with all this.
I heard that there are 54 nuclear reactors in Japan, and that the remaining reactors will be shut down in April for inspection. It’s the first time when all of Japan’s nuclear power plants will become idle, and I think this is a rare opportunity to do something. If we do not stop nuclear power plants now, we won’t have a second chance. If we don’t think what to do now, I don’t think we will be able to think at all. Once you have a nuclear power plant in your town or village, subsidies will be flowing in, finance will improve, jobs are made and you think the future is guaranteed. You feel proud without the need to work hard, just relying on a myth of safety and security, until an accident occurs. When an accident happens, the power companies will not shoulder the responsibility. Instead, they will say it’s outside of their expectations. Before paying compensation, the Utilities may initially admit they have caused injury and apologize. They bow their heads as if they have prearranged it, but when it comes to paying compensation, they’ll do everything to spare even a yen from the sum. With guidance from Tokyo Electric Power Company, they deal with us, as if they are the victims and we are the perpetrator. The Company’s monetary loss is recouped by raising the electricity rates, and they are getting back on their feet. This is what a nuclear power plant is…a power company. If by any chance nuclear power plants get restarted in Japan, there could be another nuclear accident elsewhere. To have no more victims like us, people of every village, town, prefecture and Japan need to seriously consider what to do now. If we can do away with nuclear power plants by paying a little more, a bit of a utility hike is a necessity. I want to see the brutality of nuclear power gone from this country to protect our nature and our future generation.
Lastly, I would like to thank the staff of Catholic Tokyo Volunteer Center for giving us courage, vigor and daily necessities. I’m really grateful to the people from various NPOs, volunteer organizations and local communities. We still do not know at all when we’ll be able to return, but we believe that one day, our daybreak will come, and we are going to keep our spirits up.
Thank you for your kind attention.