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April 12 LA Times Article

April 12 LA Times Article

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Published by Braven Smillie

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Published by: Braven Smillie on Apr 12, 2011
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Survivors chat each other near an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami inOnagawa, Miyagi prefecture in northeastern Japan. (Lee Jin-man / AP Photo / April 10, 2011)
 What was most impressive on coming home to Sendai, Japan, after the quake and tsunami was how few homes had been destroyed, and how rapidly life here is returning to normal.
By Braven Smillie
 April 12, 2011
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Japan's well-built society 
I recently returned to my home here in suburban Sendai,Japan, having fled with my family soon after theearthquakeand tsunami. Everything changed for this region on thatafternoon of March 11. People lost their lives and theirhomes, and that should not be minimized. But what impressedme most on coming back alone to pick up the pieces was how few homes were destroyed, and how rapidly life here isreturning to normal.Three weeks ago, kilometer-long lines of desperate motoristshad blocked roads near gas stations, nearly preventing usfrom driving out. Now the lines are just a dozen cars deep, andmoving. Also gone are the lines of people that once snaked forhundreds of yards from the entrances of blacked-out grocery stores. Gone are the harried store clerks fumbling withmegaphones as they explained rationing rules. Simpleinconvenience has replaced a sense of impending panic.I pulled into our driveway, scanning the walls for cracks, then visited neighbors to give them customary gifts and to chat.The ongoing return to orderly life outside our home
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contrasted with the remnants of chaos we'd left inside. Wallhangings were strewn everywhere, and a chair from one roomhad inexplicably migrated to another. They were reminders of  just how severely this place had been shaken, and what a wonder it was that so many homes here were left standing.Having lived in Japan since 1989, I've spent decadesnonchalantly riding out minor quakes. Now I jump at each of the frequent aftershocks that bring back the experiences of March 11. On that quiet Friday afternoon, a routine window-rattling rumble grew into a rolling, jerking ride as the wallsseemed to dart out and snatch at us. Try to recall your worstfalling dream and you'll have a sense of what it is like to loseall sense of confidence in your walls, floor and ceiling, andthen even the ability to stand. When the shaking finally stopped that day, I jogged out into alight snow to collect my daughters Tina and Elena from theirnearby elementary school. As I arrived on the playground, I was frustrated at how difficult it was to find my children, or todistinguish any of the faces of the children I knew. There wassomething common in their appearance. Every kid had thesame mask-like facial expression — a thousand-yard stare that is astonishing to see on a child.My 10-year-old, Christina, later gave a glimpse into the experiences that produced those shockedexpressions: "It shook from the floor, and almost everybody was crying.... And our teacher said,'Duck down under your desk and save your head!' It was like we were on a big boat and we wereholding on to the feet of our desks and it was going back and forth and back and forth, like rowing a boat." The shock and terror were real. But not one child or teacher at the school was seriously hurt. As the assembled children waited for their parents, we looked across the playground, watching long,low, quick swells pass across the surface. Sometimes the ground seemed to rotate around us inimpossible ways. We heard a series of distant explosions, and a few much closer. How, I thought, hadthe school building remained intact? Shouldn't there be rubble?The March 11 quake produced some of the most intense ground shaking and tsunami surges ever tohit a populated area. I have seen the areas where entire towns — and the families who lived in them — were literally washed away. It is hard even to grasp destruction on that level. It is harder still to grasphow much more of the earthquake zone remains totally intact. And I don't just mean physicalstructures; our societal structures have held fast as well.On my return, I am not having to sift through rubble; I'm only having to get the gas reconnected. Thislife-and-death difference was made by things that we usually regard as mundane: building codes,evacuation drills, honest contractors.On the day of the quake, after our initial relief at having survived, we had to improvise sources of heat, light, sustenance. Almost as bad as the lack of electricity, gas and water was the lack of knowing.This gnawing uncertainty grew over the next few days, especially after cellphone service was restoredand we began to learn of the overheating nuclear reactors inFukushima, about 50 miles south. Newsreports showed a bull's-eye of concentric circles on a map of our region, with red in the middle, wherethe reactors were burning, and shading to orange and yellow farther out. We were outside the yellow part, but not far enough. In the end, it was that expanding bull's-eye map that clinched our decision toleave.Hours of searching yielded four seats on a flight out of the local airport in Akita, but to get theremeant a drive of more than six hours on mountain roads. We had about 23 liters left in the tank. But was it enough? In deep snow on uncertain roads, there would be no margin for error. We set out, driving first through town and then on rural roads that gradually climbed into low mountains. Around dark, I watched the odometer and fuel gauge pass the point at which we couldturn back. More miles and hours passed, eating up precious fuel on the climb. I became so focused onmileage that I even slowed the windshield wipers down, hoping it would save fuel during the trip. We made it. But after a period of relief, I began to feel a little guilty. Had I left others behind tomanage when we should be pitching in too? After 17 days away, it was time to go home.I returned to Sendai in advance of my family. It seems that many families with young children alsoleft after the earthquake. Now they are trickling back in, still a bit nervous as they monitor news of the nuclear plant cleanup and ride out frequent aftershocks, sometimes rivaling the original quake inintensity. School administrators are scrambling to figure out how many students they will have forthe new academic year, which started April 11.
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People talk about where gas lines are the shortest and where fresh eggs are on sale again. Friends pullup in front of my house asking me to grab a shovel and join them in a day of volunteer work clearingdebris in the nearby tsunami zone. There are no stories of looting or violence, because those things would be unthinkable. The Japanese people and their culture have a tenacity and resilience that comeout in times like these. And barring some massive failure to contain the nuclear mess in Fukushima, we may very well look back on the aftermath of this disaster, despite the tragedy and loss of life, as asocietal success story.Braven Smillie, who was born and raised in San Diego, is a freelance translator in Sendai.
Copyright © 2011,Los Angeles Times
From the L.A. Times
7.1 aftershock hits JapanJapan hit with magnitude 7.1 aftershock; tsunami warning briefly issuedNo West Coast tsunami expected after Japan’s strong earthquake
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Japan to Evacuate More Towns Around Crippled Nuclear Plant |ktla.com6.6 Quake Jolts Japan Coast, Tsunami Warning Issued |ktla.com7.4 Quake Strikes Off Japan Coast, Tsunami Alert Issued |ktla.com
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Tammy Nam added this note
Braven - great op-ed in the LA Times! Your Scribd profile mirrors your life - first about the earthquake and the aftermath, then back to normal with your passion for clay sculpture. ;)

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