Monday, March 1, 2010

Caution is the Quay

All day Sunday every channel on TV had a blinking, color-coded tsunami warning map of Japan overlaying about 20% of the screen, much/most regular programming was replaced with tsunami news, and coastal areas were constantly subjected to a barrage of PA system and emergency services vehicle announcements warning people near the water to evacuate and to stay away from the seashore.

The waves from the Chile earthquake arrived in due course, with less force than had been feared, but with some pretty dramatic scenes of quays submerged until nothing but the tops of bollards could be seen, and waves rushing upstream in rivers.

Earthquake-prone Japan is no stranger to tsunamis; almost 200 have been recorded. In 1498 one even washed away the building that once housed the Great Buddha in Kamakura, a considerable distance from the nearest beach. More recently, the 1993 Okushiri tsunami killed nearly 200 people with a wave over 30 meters high. The memory of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami is still pretty fresh, and there have been many documentaries and news stories since then about the potential danger of tsunamis. One originating as far away as Chile is not lightly dismissed here: it is often mentioned that the one caused by the 1960 Chile earthquake killed 199 people in Japan. So the government, quite rightly, was not inclined to take this newest tsunami threat lightly.

There are always some people who fail to exercise sufficient caution (I hesitate to say "common sense", because it so demonstrably often isn't that common). Quite a few surfers rushed right out to the Pacific beach at Kujukuri, Chiba, intending to surf the tsunami, and had to be warned back by the local police. I predicted this scenario...I've known a lot of surfers.

Perhaps less understandably--but equally predictably--one of the remote camera video feeds on the news showed a couple of people who went down to a harbor edge, in one of the areas with the highest warning level, at the height of the first tsunami wave. They were apparently undaunted by the fact that the quay was inundated by a wave almost sufficient to cover the tires of vehicles parked on it, and deep and strong enough to force the guys to climb atop a block wall. What motivated them to head for the sea when 70,000* people around the nation's coasts were heading away from it to shelters, and after several hours of persistent warning announcements, is a mystery to me.

*This was the figure that seemed most reliable at the time I wrote this post, a little after midnight Monday morning; later in the day other numbers were published, including the probably pretty reliable ones from quoting a Kyodo News estimate of 520,000 nationwide ordered to evcuate, of whom 320,000 were in Aomori, Iwate, and Miyagi. They say "About 30,000 people actually moved to public evacuation centers, according to the Kyodo News estimate", but it's not clear to me whether that's a nationwide total or referring to the people in those three prefectures only.


Hugh Ashton said...

Ha! Quay versus Key - I take it you've been following the SWET discussion.

Balefire said...

Indeed I have. I'm somewhat surprised that anyone noticed, though.