by liberal japonicus
I'm grateful to fiddler Doctor Science for the open post, but I thought that I would give post just for the earthquake and let the open thread be for everything else and help give everyone some idea of Sendai, which was where the epicenter of the quake was as well as some points to take into account when reading the coverage.
While my family live in Kyushu and my wife's family lives in Hokkaido, so no family is directly touched by the disaster, I lived in Sendai for 5 years in the late 80's/early 90's and Sendai is the first place I lived in Japan. I've kept touch with a few people there, and in Japan, there is something similar to Christmas cards, called nengajo, delivered at New Year's which is how I kept touch. Since I'm in the states now, I don't have access to the phone numbers, but when I talked to my wife (I'm in the US now, she is back in Japan), she said that phone service is out and cell service is very spotty, so it will be a few days before we can contact anyone I knew. There are bulletin boards up, but since all the people I knew were from pre-internet, and I would have to read thru Japanese bulletin boards, I'm just going to have to sit tight and hope.
Sendai is in 'Tohoku' which means 'East-north' and Japanese often refer to this as 'Eastern Japan', because Japan lies on the diagonal. Sendai is 190 miles north of Tokyo, and it is the main city in Miyagi prefecture, and Miyagi, along with neighboring prefectures of Fukushima and Ibaraki were primarly effected, but because of the location on the Pacific, Sendai suffered the brunt of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The city is about 5.4 miles from the coast, I'm not sure how far inland the 10 m tsunami came.
Tohoku is considered to be a rural part of Japan, such that movies where the character is speaking with a US southern accent will sometimes be dubbed with a Tohoku accent. This may give a bit of a disconnect, because Japanese often consider Tohoku a rather rural place, but Sendai is a city of over a million people, so any reference to 'rural' should be taken as a slight translation problem.
According to reports I have seen, the earthquake measured 8.9, perhaps on the Richter scale. In Japan, they use a newer scale, called a moment magnitude scale. We have some folks with math background here, so I'll defer to them about how the two scales vary, but it is said that the scales are close enough that reports doesn't name the scale, but if you see some variance in the reporting, this may explain it.
I have seen various figures for the number of nuclear reactors (as high as 11) in the three prefectures but some seem to conflate sites, with number of reactors. They all have shut down fail-safes, and are no longer online, and the Japan Nuclear Commission has reported that there are no radiation leaks, meaning that the earthquake has not caused a loss of containment, but the loss of electricity in the area seems to have led to difficulties in pumping the cooling water around the reactors. The one closest to the epicenter was the Onagawa plant and the picture in the Wikipedia entry gives you an idea of why the tsunami could be a problem. The other two, located in Fukushima (Fukushima Daiichi and Daini, (Dai means big or major, ichi means 1 and 2 means two) have also had their populations evaculated from the area, suggesting that a similar problem may be happening there. As I understand it, they have emergency generators to handle this, but I'm not sure how long they can run and what powers them. NYTimes and Reuters on some aspects of this.
While the reports have been concentrated around Sendai, I sadly believe that the areas to the north of Sendai were also hit very hard. If you have some Japanese, you might want to take a look at this Tokyo Broadcasting News report. This is from Kesenuma, a fishing village/town that is 90 miles north of Sendai on the Pacific coast. This area of coast from the north of Sendai was, when I lived there, quite isolated from the main city, such that the train from Sendai to Kesenuma took as long as the bullet train from Tokyo to Sendai. I used to drive along that coast road, and I'd be surprised if it much more accessible than it was back then. I'd also add that you can often find Japanese news reports thru Google news and the Japanese transcript of what they are saying will be given below, which can be very helpful in understanding stories, though these seem to be only the ones read from news scripts rather than the live reporting you see above so if you have some Japanese, you may want to play with google news to see the later reports for more details.
Japanese are quite earthquake conscious, and this video illustrates that. As the quake strengthens, the family leaves the house to get into the street and away from the house. This is even though the Japanese building code was revised most recently in 1998 and 2000 and is probably the world's strongest in terms of earthquake resistance, and Japanese often rebuild completely rather than renovate. I've actually never been in an earthquake where it became a question of leaving the building or getting under a desk, so that also shows the power of this earthquake.
The code also has some required reinforcement for previously constructed buildings and there is a specific magnitude that they have to be able to withstand. For Japanese homes, construction is often wood, but with design features to resist earthquakes, though to what magnitude, I'm not sure. One of the big dangers is that japanese homes often have tile roofs which are quite heavy (designed to resist typhoons, I believe) which can collapse. However, I don't think there is a 'tsunami' construction code, especially facing a 10 meter wave, so no amount of earthquake reinforcement is going to deal with that.
You also may have seen houses that are floating in the tsunami that are on fire (its on a clip on CNN, but I can't find anything on youtube). To explain that a bit, I believe this means that the buildings themselves were strong enough to retain structural integrity even as they were struck by the tsunami. The fires are because Japanese homes use often use gas for cooking and water heating. The water heating is usually 'on demand'. Sendai is actually quite cold in the winter, so many houses will have small gas tanks outside of the house to reduce the possibility of house fires, so that is what I think you are seeing.
The airport in Sendai is about 2 miles from the coast, so I wonder how the immediate relief effort will work. One video shows the airport under water with people on top of the airport building, but I assume the runways will be usable after the water recedes. Here is a video of Japanese news that starts with the airport and then shows oil tanks in Chiba prefecture (outside of Tokyo) burning. There is also a large port in Sendai that will be used for deployment of assets, I assume, but in the next 48 hours, I'm not sure where rescue efforts will be centered.
I'm going to step away from the computer a bit, and try and add, either in updates or comments plus try and answer any questions.
This page has a lot of resources for keeping up on the news and finding friends who are in Japan link
Just to pull some grafs from that
Google has released a version of their Google Person Finder, currently localized in Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese. Currently, this database depends on self-reported information--you can search for a person by name, and it will return with any information that someone else has put into the database about that person. If you have confirmation that your affected friends and family are okay, please consider adding that information to the Person Finder database by clicking I have information about someone.
Also, Google Crisis Response has launched a 2011 Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami hub with the latest news, updated maps and a growing list of useful resources for finding out more about the quake. Currently, you can access public data records, updates on the Japanese power grid and even Japanese train schedules, which could help you locate your loved ones.
You can also check in via cell phone number--each of the major Japanese cell networks has a simple disaster board that can check to see if they've left any messages with their respective network's message board, whether it's NTT DoCoMo, SoftBank, or KDDI AU.
The U.S. Department of State has launched a succinct Japan Earthquake & Pacific Tsunami page with travel alerts and contact information for making missing person inquiries. To confirm the safety of a U.S. citizen in Japan, send a concise inquiry to: email@example.com
Furthermore, the Red Cross operates a "Safe And Well" register to help disaster victims let their friends and family know they're safe. If you want to make a donation to help those affected by this disaster, donate via the Red Cross website and make sure to select the "Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami" option. It's even easier to donate via phone by texting REDCROSS to 90999, which donates $10 to the general Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund from your next phone bill; as of publication, there is no specific phone donation code for donating exclusively to relief efforts in Japan.
apologies to fiddler and Doctor Science for confusing them.
The New York Times has a live blog with lots of videos, but I can't seem to link to individual youtube videos. The 1:07 blog post is interesting as it has a video of the town of Miyako being struck by the tsunami. You will note that many people are up on the high ground watching the tsunami go thru, and the dead and insured tolls for Iwate prefecture. You'll note that they are remarkably detailed and rather low. This is because Japanese police keep detailed maps identifying the residents of each house that are readily obtainable and the early warning system is quite extensive, so they can identify who is missing very quickly. This situation will be quite different in Sendai, where the tsunami hit quite suddenly and there was little time to escape.
The same blog has a page for charitable giving
There is a live feed from TBS here (Japanese only). It's morning now in Japan and the TV programs will be having lots of detail about current rescue efforts, so there will be detailed reports and footage. This Australia Broadcasting page gives some details of the state of things as of this am in Japan.
I've been watching CNN and watching the Japanese news channels and there are a few things that strike a wrong note with me. They are understandable, but I wanted to pass them on.
1)Japan is not Tokyo. CNN has had several bloggers on live feeds, and asking them what they experienced. A number of people have been interviewed, but they all seem to be from Tokyo or visiting Tokyo. While the gas fire at the Cosmos gas refinery in Chiba, near Tokyo, was quite spectacular, but my impression is that Tokyo is generally safe. As reporters get into Sendai, the impression of the disasater will change quite a bit.
2)The death toll will not be as horrific as it was for Banda Aceh and might be surprising low for all the damage you see. You will see lots of videos of the tsunami coming in. This is, as I mentioned above, because they were able to evacuate people to higher ground. Some reports I read said that in the areas closest to the tsunami, the warning was only about 4 minutes, but that gave people a chance to get out.
The tsunami warning system worked Friday, with the agency alerting people to imminent tsunamis within three minutes of the quake, and the first waves struck 10 to 15 minutes later. The alert may have saved hundreds of lives, as some residents were able to flee to higher ground. link
Many of the commentators seem to be thinking of deaths in the high thousands (the indian ocean tsunami killed 230,000), but while not giving an estimate, I think people will be surprised by the mismatch between amount of destruction and the number of casualties. It will still be far too many, but the early warning systems in place will have prevented a much much higher toll.
3)the nuclear reactors are a story to be tracking. The tsunami knocked out the diesel generators, but there are backup batteries, however, they won't last forever, so they are probably making every effort to find ways to keep that power going. This article has an interesting tidbit that I have read about, but now can't find the article. Here are the key grafs
The International Atomic Energy Agency said Friday on its website that the quake and tsunami knocked out the reactor's off-site power source, which is used to cool down the radioactive material inside. Then, the tsunami waves disabled the backup source -- diesel generators -- and authorities were working to get these operating.
Janie Eudy told CNN that her 52-year-old husband, Joe, was working at the plant and was injured by falling and shattering glass when the quake struck. As he and others were planning to evacuate, at their managers' orders, the tsunami waves struck and washed buildings from the nearby town past the plant.
Eighty employees of General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy, including Eudy, who were at the plant are all safe, company spokesman Michael Tetuan said. He added that the firm is devising plans to evacuate those workers, who were subcontractors at the plant.
I believe I read a story about the fact that the vast majority of workers at nuclear power plants in Japan are foreigners, but it may come out.
SEK over at LGM notes this estimate at Kyodo news of 88,000 dead. As I note in a comment over there, this is going to be too high, unless something further happens. I also note that Japanese has a basic unit of 10,000 which often creates errors in large numbers.
As sekaijin mentions, the domestic news may be sugarcoating the Fukushima reactor situation. The Guardian liveblog might be of interest, but it is hard to evaluate all the information coming out. A lot of the Japanese nuclear industry is out of sight, out of mind for Japanese. I have read that there are a large contingent of foreign workers at these plants, and I believe that it is because young Japanese have a bit of a squick going into jobs involved with nuclear power. The NIMBY reaction to nuclear is often muted by both a realization of the need for energy that does not involve importing, a push to reduce CO2, and careful thought put to location etc so the plant doesn't look like something in the Simpsons. The wikipedia link to the Onodera plant above has a picture and I'd guess that that is the only way you can get a clear picture of the plant. Here are two articles (here and here) about nuclear power in Japan from the excellent Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (as the name may suggest, while it is focussed on Japan, the articles range from all over Asia and the Pacific)