Saturday, March 12, 2011

Earthquake, Tsunami, Chain Reaction ... Mothera is scary when he's real...


First, I want to thank all of you who have shown an interest in this crisis around the world. As I have watched your responses on Facebook, Twitter, and news websites, the outpouring of emotional energy, empathy, and compassion has been tremendous.

Here's to hoping that your momentum carries over into international aid.

Friday was the first earthquake of my life. It seems it was about 3pm in the afternoon that I first realized I was bouncing. 230 miles away, the Pacific plate was making some serious progress in its quest to burrow beneath the North American plate. I didn't know it at the time, sitting in my closet-office talking to Alysondra on Skype, but I was actually moving. I moved a whole 8 feet East. I DO miss my friends in the states, so I guess it felt good moving a little bit closer to home.

In all seriousness, this quake is obviously no trivial thing, but a waking nightmare for thousands of people. On the other hand, here in Higashikurume my living room was not turned upside down. My train was not derailed. No mudslides or boats crashed into my house. At no point during the event did I feel afraid. I didn't know that, not far from me, offices and houses were being shaken like a child shakes a candy box, trying to get every last piece.

It began slowly at first. I looked around, confused. Why am I bouncing? I wasn't shaking my legs. No one was behind me grabbing my chair, and there was no jackhammer doing construction near my apartment. I took out my headphones and thought for a moment--then it dawned on me. Oh, yeah, Japan has earthquakes! I slid down to the floor underneath my door frame and waited.

The quake rolled in ambling, almost leisurely, as if it had plenty of time to make its point. At its climax, the building groaned and creaked like an old spinster on a hiking trip, then the vibration dwindled away, as if it was feeling lazy but didn't want to stay. At no point did I feel unsafe. If I could have guessed, in my infinite earthquake innocence, I would have given it a 6 on the Richter Scale--impressive, but not scary. In fact, I was exhilarated. I felt like I had just taken a roller-coaster ride for the first time. After it passed, I resumed what I was doing, and, later, checked my house to find that a book had been tipped over on my shelf. 

More than an hour later, I was shocked to find out via websearch that I had just sat through a 7.9. Then an 8.9. Then an 8.4. Then a 9. There didn't seem to be a clear consensus for about 5 hours. I was aghast that such a powerful beast had slipped by without me giving it the time of day.

Tuning in to the footage didn't take long to give me a different perspective on what was going on. The Tokyo Metro is shut down.. millions of people stranded.. a giant wave is crashing into the city of Sendai right now.. boats and houses and cars all floating around like playthings.. airports are flooded.. a refinery burns.. several nuclear power plants shut down.. My little quake caused quite a ruckus.

The destruction seemed so direct, definitive.. callous. How could such a powerful force be? How could a wave be massive enough to wipe out an entire city? How could a nuclear plant be in danger of meltdown? Can't we just have one disaster? It was as if nature wasn't satisfied enough yet, and kept saying "and NOW, THIS is gonna happen." It was a chain reaction of disasters outside of anyone's control. 

But it wasn't a matter of satisfaction. No one was getting anything out of it. The tsunami didn't hesitate in wiping out an entire city, despite the fact that it would cause immeasurable suffering and wailing. Why? And who could give such a callous force so much power to do its will, even if that means to mercilessly and relentlessly destroy without warning?

It is hubris to even continue living in the knowledge that such power exists. Tokyo is, reasonably, the largest metropolis in the world. Japanese architects have been making earthquake resistant buildings not for decades, but for centuries. There's no such thing as a "ranch" style home here. Japan has been preparing for years for a quake that would break records. It's one of the most earthquake-aware, earthquake-safe countries in the world, yet that didn't stop whole cities from being destroyed in minutes.

The Kobe earthquake of 1995 leveled most of a city, resulting in 6000 deaths. That quake was a 7.3, almost indiscernibly small next to Friday's on a scale of actual energy. Callous, wanton energy. The same earth that nurtures us also has the power to obliterate us.

Tokyo's tallest building for a long time was Tokyo Tower in Minato. Built exactly like the Eiffel tower (only 13 meters taller), this frequent tourist destination looks out over the entire city, and is a symbol of Tokyo. Or, if you look at humanity as a whole, it is a symbol of man's accomplishment. After the quake on Friday, the top of the tower was bent, possibly symbolically "bowing down" to the power that had humbled it.

In honesty, Japan is lucky if this was the "big one" of a century (which we hope it was). No matter how how well-designed the towers, if Friday's epicenter had hit Tokyo, casualties would not be in the hundreds or the thousands, but the millions. We would not have lost a city, but a metropolis. Even Tokyo's strongest and most-ingeniously built skyscrapers would have contorted violently at the hands of a 9.0 quake. The raw power of such an event could have leveled the skyline.

What kind of being would allow such power to exist? In times like this it is neither right to accuse our Creator, nor to thank Him. It may very well be that the hand of God prevented an obscene power from wreaking its evil in Tokyo, but evil was still loosed, and the tragedy is real. We are not grateful, but we are humbled.

The "why" is an unanswerable question, and therefore irrelevant. Our natural reaction to the callous acts of nature is to be callous ourselves. This we must not do. We must keep our hearts soft and accept the pain in order to empathize with and reach out to those around us.

A Chain Reaction
I remember what I did after I found out about the tsunami. I went to the store to get emergency supplies, and dinner. A feeling of fear and panic was obvious, as cars rushed by to pick up loved ones, and families flocked to the supermarket for emergency food and water. I had wanted to buy some to-go sushi from the supermarket, but all the onegiri (pre-made meals) were completely sold out. Disappointed, I came home and watched a movie. It was my anti-climax.

My feelings were of helplessness and powerlessness. Even as people were suffering just on the other side of my city, I could do nothing for them. There are no words to describe the feeling of helplessly watching someone else suffer, and wondering if you're next. I'd imagine that's how ancient Christians felt when they were thrust into an arena to fight lions.

Later that night, the tension overwhelmed me, and I had to get out to see and feel something. As I walked outside, I was drenched in the palpable solemnity. The stream that runs next to my house is lined with well-lit bike paths on either side. It is a rarity to see it empty on any given night, even late in the evening. Yet I heard and saw no one for minutes. I think others must have sensed this powerless tension, too. When I finally encountered others, there was a nervousness and a restlessness. Disorganization, chaos, and confusion are uncharacteristic of Tokyo. Sirens wailed in the distance. Trains, packed full of work refugees, howled into the station as family members waited anxiously in nearby cars.

As I write this, I feel even more aftershocks in the earth. The groaning. It is a reminder that the earth, too, is in pain, and will pass away like we shall. Maybe nature was unleashing its own pain on us that night. I continue to hope for a time of no more groaning. 

I love you all. Please know I appreciate your thoughts, prayers, and concerns. So far, I'm alive, and I'm carrying the fire.

Michael out.


  1. thanks for the update Mike...thinking about you a lot, and I am glad you're safe. please keep us posted.

  2. Mike, I love you man. Jenny and I are praying for you and the whole situation. Take care and let us know if you need anything.

  3. Thanks guys... I really appreciate it. I just need prayer right now.. word.

    I love you guys lots. When I get back, we'll all celebrate! =)