Sunday, January 29, 2012

Semper Paratus

Perhaps it's because I was born and raised in temblor-prone San Francisco that I've never been awakened by even rather strong earthquakes. At least, I don't think I have; there have been a couple of times that a rather strong quake hit within minutes of my eyes opening in the morning, so maybe the earliest waves did wake me up. Either way, one of those times what jolted me from bleary pre-coffee semi-wakefulness to wide-awake fight-or-flight tense hyper awareness wasn't the shaking, it was the sound of something exploding in the next room. At least, that's what it sounded like to me. Getting up to investigate, I was puzzled by a layer of what looked like crushed ice covering several  square meters of the room's carpet, next to a refrigerator. 

The freezer door was closed, though, and I couldn't come up with a scenario that would dislodge and spray that much ice from a frost-free freezer, and close the door, regardless of any conceivable shaking pattern. I'm glad that I stood still and thought about it instead of rushing into the room: the "ice" was the disintegrated remains of what had been a large, heavy, lead crystal vase that had been on top of the fridge. I regret the loss of the vase, but it taught me a valuable lesson.

That sparkling carpet of crystal shards was between me and the apartment door. Escape from the building in the event of a really serious quake would not have been made easier by starting with a barefoot walk over broken glass--glass that I might not even have seen had it been midnight with the power out, rather than early morning. Now I don't put potentially dangerous things where they might be knocked down, and I know very well why it's a good idea to keep footwear with strong soles near the bed. However, I might still have that vase if I'd given earthquake preparedness the careful thought it deserves, a lot earlier. 

Some things one ought to do, such as keeping a flashlight near your bed or trying to situate the bed away from windows that might break in a quake (or in a typhoon, for that matter), are pretty obvious, and may not require much effort. Securing furniture so that it's less likely to topple or disgorge contents (crockery, for example, or your wine or whiskey collection), may involve more trouble and expense but is nonetheless worth it for the damage you can avoid to yourself and your property. Wedges to place under the front edges of wardrobes and bookcases, or hardware to secure them to walls, are inexpensive and easily available at do-it-yourself shops or hardware stores. This is particularly important if you're unable to situate such furniture away from where it might fall on you...small rooms limit the placement options, but "crushed by a chest of drawers" isn't what I'd want for an epitaph.

Computers, TVs, and other items of electronic equipment are certainly expensive enough to justify the rather small investment in time and money required to prevent them from being knocked off your desk or racks (and don't forget to secure the racks, too).  Speaking of computers, if an earthquake strong enough to damage the hardware despite your precautions hits, it's probably not going to do the data on your hard drives much good, either; you should consider backing up and saving really important data somewhere else entirely, whether in a different physical location, or in the "cloud" somewhere.

Since everyone's situation is different, I'm not going into any further detail about securing possessions. The important thing is to take a few minutes, look around at your home (and at your workplace, if you have any say in what can be done there), imagine what might happen if it all were given a thorough shaking, and decide what you can do to make it safer for you and for your stuff. There's a lot of information on the 'net if you want detailed advice.

As we have seen too many times in the last few years, Japan is prone to earthquakes that are really destructive, enough to wreck buildings  and infrastructure, and rearrange large swathes of landscape, causing many deaths and injuries and displacing thousands. Predicting them isn't practical and may never be, and a few seconds' advance warning--if that--is about the best that can be hoped for in the foreseeable future. There are some good sites around the 'net with advice on what to do before, during, and immediately after an earthquake, and if you have any doubt at all--or even if you don't--you should go read them, and then hold practice drills, particularly if you have a family. A small sample includes one from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, one from the US Embassy in Tokyo, one from FEMA in the US, and one that's part of a very good overall disaster preparedness site from the Provincial Emergency Program site of British Columbia, Canada.

Those of you who work away from home should also consider what you'll do when a quake strikes while you're at work, or on the way to or from your workplace. I started writing this post last night, but by coincidence this morning's Japan Times Online ran an article about a newly discovered 200-km-long active fault off the Kii Peninsula, a story that for some reason had an additional piece appended to it about what people working in Tokyo during the 3/11 quake did about getting home. It says, in part:

Some 34 percent of people walked home from their workplaces or schools in Tokyo's 23 wards after the March 11 earthquake without waiting for train and other public transportation services to resume, a survey by the Railway Technical Research Institute showed Saturday.

For those who walked, it took an average three hours and nine minutes to get home, excluding time for breaks, the survey said They walked an average distance of 13.4 km, with 11 respondents walking more than 30 km.

Only 5 percent of those surveyed "went to accommodation facilities or stayed  with acquaintances", but the earthquake struck in early afternoon on a Friday. Had it not been the beginning of a weekend, I'd bet that many more would have stayed in their offices. I heard of one unfortunate individual who attempted a long walk home from near Tokyo Station to somewhere in western Tokyo but dropped dead along the way, probably the victim of a heart attack. Less tragic anecdotes from the time indicate that many people lacked clear knowledge about the walking route home, and few were well prepared for a hike of more than 10 km, much less 30+. 

That's a long walk in high heels, for example, or even in men's business shoes, and relying on convenience stores being open and still stocked with water or food along the way was a chancy thing. Planning for such a walk home when the next train-stopping quake hits might be a good idea, and keeping a manageably small but thoughtfully stocked disaster kit at your workplace certainly is, along with a pair of comfortable and sturdy shoes.  A wise commuter would habitually keep at least a small bottle of water, a bar or two of emergency food, and one of those emergency blankets that fold up smaller than a pocket tissue packet, in their purse, briefcase, day-pack, or whatever, in case the quake hits while in transit.

Easily portable disaster kits for the home and car, along with less portable but potentially useful gear and supplies for what may be a long wait until necessities become available, should be planned, purchased, and stored where they will be easily accessible both for post-disaster use and for regular checking and replacement/replenishment. Dead batteries or spoiled food aren't going to do you much good, after all.

There are plenty of sources for advice on what to include in disaster kits, including those sites above. Some sites concentrating on survival may at first strike you as a bit extreme, but I encourage you to at least skim through anything that you find that looks even remotely useful: you can find some gems in unlikely-seeming places, including instructive first-hand accounts like these (read the entries by "Joe" and by "Expat D" from last March and April, for example). 

There are also lots of sources on the 'net for emergency gear and supplies (some military surplus gear, by the way, can be ideal). You may find that ordering online gets you better quality, more variety, and lower prices than shopping at the neighborhood DYI store's "disaster goods" corner. You may also find that things like canned tuna (I'd get oil-packed, myself, because the oil's usable for cooking other things) or corned beef (which might be too salty if your water supply is too limited, but tastes good as is) can be bought on sale at the local supermarket and may be much more palatable than typical emergency food. I wouldn't be happy on a kanpan (Japanese hardtack) diet for long.

If you're in the Tokyo area, you can find shops that sell  inexpensive--by Tokyo standards--imported canned and bottled food in relatively large containers that are likely to be cheaper than what you can find in your neighborhood supermarket, and maybe tastier, too. A kilo of ground coffee for under 1000 yen, for example, or Spam for 300-odd yen or sometimes less. The Kaldi Coffee Farm chain shops scattered around town, or Kishi Photo in Togoshi Ginza spring to mind. I gather that Costco would probably be a good source, but none of their stores are convenient enough for me to have visited them. The Flying Pig is an option, too, for some things, but they're not exactly cheap; they are convenient, however. The Meat Guy is a great source for meat, cheese, and the like, which isn't what you'd think of as very suitable for emergency food if your power is out, but he offers some very good canned, bottled, and dehydrated food as well, and runs his operation very pleasantly and professionally.

Dehydrated food has the advantage of being light and easy to store for a relatively long time. You can find some pretty fancy and tasty items, including more-or-less complete meals, many intended for campers and hikers, some specifically selected and packaged for emergencies, but keep in mind that water may be in short supply for at least the first few days after a sufficiently severe disaster. You may have to look around a bit to find an online supplier that will ship to Japan, however. One of the well-known suppliers is Mountain House, but they don't ship to Japan and appear to offer only a sadly limited range of products through their local agent. Cabela's, however, does ship to Japan, evidently including some Mountain House products. It's worth doing a little research while you plan how you'd survive in relative comfort for up to a week or two without shops, power, or running water.

If you're much of a hiker or camper, you may already own some gear that would serve you well in the days after a major disaster; try checking and updating it, maybe relocating it if necessary to have it immediately available: the tent and sleeping bag in the back of your closet under the collapsed roof won't help you much. You might want to add water purification tablets/gear if you don't already have them, and if you really want to get fancy, you might consider something like this.

In any case, the time to get your act together is before, not after, the next disaster. Please give some serious thought to what you have, and what you might need. Plan carefully, and then act on the plan. I personally think that anyone in the Tokyo area who survives when a really big earthquake strikes had best prepare for at least a week--probably more like two--of living very rough, and a lot of discomfort after that.

 If you own motor vehicles, by the way, I strongly advise keeping the fuel topped up all the time. It took a long time for fuel supplies to become available after 3/11, and it could take much longer depending on when and how the next disaster hits. Expressways and main roads are likely to be impassable--even if intact--for a while, but you might find that you have to rely on your own wheels as an ambulance, or to get to where you can acquire, say, firewood or water.

This has been very Tokyo-centered, because I live more or less in the Tokyo area and because I believe that a big quake hitting Tokyo is likely to foul up rescue and recovery efforts much more than it would in most other areas. Being always prepared, as the title of this post suggests, is a good idea regardless of where you live, and that's true whether you're more likely to encounter earthquakes or hurricanes or tornadoes or floods, or whatever other slings and arrows Nature might send your way. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Chance of a Roll

The Tokyo area infrastructure, particularly public and private transportation, doesn't hold up very well under stress. Typhoons that pass over too closely; the increasingly common localized, violent "guerrilla rains"; or even a few centimeters of snow are likely to cause disruption, and often the degree of disruption seems disproportionate to the cause. The number of people living and working in a relatively small area, and the distances that many of them have to commute--I've seen averages figures of 26 km and 68 minutes claimed for people working in Metropolitan Tokyo--contribute greatly to this, as do many other factors including road conditions and the layout of the city. Even a single slightly delayed train, along with a certain amount of ripple effect, can inconvenience a lot of people if it's anywhere around rush hour, for example, and if the delay demands switching passengers to buses, the already chronically congested streets don't make things any smoother.

Yesterday's first snowfall of the season was the heaviest in six years, but it only amounted to between two and six centimeters around Tokyo and caused fewer train delays than I've seen in the past. Nevertheless, there were at least 53 people taken to hospitals with snow-related injuries (mostly pedestrians who slipped and fell), 393 traffic accidents in Tokyo, and well over 1000 traffic accidents if the immediate surrounding area is included. There almost certainly would have been more trouble if the snow had started falling more heavily and earlier: many people seem to have managed to start for home in time to avoid getting stuck, and much of the snow fell after the commuters and their trains, buses, and cars were mostly done for the day.

Earthquakes, being destructive as well as obstructive,  obviously can be even more disruptive, as those of us who have lived here for awhile already thought we knew, before last March's catastrophe demonstrated to us just how much nature can interfere with civilization. I think it's safe to say that most Tokyo or Southern Kanto dwellers tended to think of Tohoku as being pretty far away, even while being intellectually aware that Sendai is only two hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen. The direct, and indirect--and continuing--effects of the 3/11 disaster have disabused us of that notion.

Now a team of University of Tokyo researchers has published a report saying that a Magnitude 7 earthquake (I believe that's roughly comparable to the 1906 or 1989 earthquakes that struck my home town of San Francisco) has a 70% chance of striking Tokyo within the next four years. The Japanese government's previous claim has been a 70% chance within 30 years. Earthquake prediction, even when old records are considered more carefully and less skeptically than they had been, is a very inexact science. It's also not the only branch of science that doesn't really lend itself well to speaking of percentage chances over time...likelihood can be a tricky thing to quantify. Still, the Meteorological Agency reports that an average of 1.48 earthquakes per day ranging from Magnitude 3 to 6 have occurred in and near Tokyo since last March's quake, roughly five times as many as before it. The increased seismic activity is thought by at least some researchers to increase the likelihood of a big quake striking Tokyo, sooner than was previously expected.

Depending on the time of day, on wind velocity, and on the season, the casualties and damage that would be caused by a Magnitude 7 quake hitting near Tokyo would be huge. Even pretty conservative estimates suggest between 7,000 and 12,000 deaths, 6.5 million people unable to return home, and something between a half and 1.5 million buildings destroyed completely by earthquake, liquefaction, and fire combined. It doesn't require too much imagination to see how the disruption of Japan's highly centralized national government and financial/adminstrative/communications center would affect rescue services and the logistics of getting essential services back up.

Personally, I would want to be neither in one of the deeper subways nor in a high-rise condominium or office when a quake of that magnitude or larger strikes Tokyo.  Both are likely to be fairly quake-resistant (at least the newer ones), but neither offer very attractive options for getting to any other relatively safe place with food and water available in the short term. I concede that either might be safer than, for example, being caught riding my motorcycle under the expressway or a railway trestle, but I think I'd prefer the probably illusory feeling of freedom that being at ground level with my own vehicle would give me.

I'm also well aware that a 70% chance of a massive quake within the next 30 years or within the next four means that it could be tomorrow either way. That's not a thought that anyone wants to dwell on very much, including me. That shouldn't prevent us from doing what we can to prepare as much as is practical for the eventuality, however. Next time, I'll go into some of my thoughts on that.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Yielding Place to New

I wish all of you a very happy, healthy, and prosperous Year of the Dragon! Oriental dragons are very different from their Western counterparts, bringing good fortune, and I hope that we all experience a lot more good fortune and a lot less misfortune than we did last year.

The Dragon's creative, unconventional, flexible, confident, courageous nature, disdaining conformity and constraint, may be just the set  of characteristics that is needed in the coming Japan and in much of the rest of the world social, political  and financial problems have mostly been worsened by traditional approaches. New and better ideas and actions are called for, and I hope to see many successful ones.

I hope that the coming year turns out to be a far better one for each of you, for all of your loved ones, and for me and mine, too.

Happy New Year! I hope it will be a great one!