Cleanup crew: Matthew Ketchum (third from left) joined his friend's makeshift group to help clear his adopted hometown of rubble following the Great East Japan Earthquake. | COURTESY OF MATTHEW KETCHUM

Yugawara, Kanagawa Pref. – When an earthquake hits, there’s a moment, a few seconds in, where you ask yourself, “Should I panic?” That was me on March 9, 2011, the Wednesday before “the big one.”

The 11:45 a.m. quake registered as magnitude 7.3, which I felt with a hard thump in my apartment in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, where I was living at the time. I ran downstairs to my landlord’s place in a panic, but he assured me there was nothing to be concerned about. He told me I’d know for sure when a real quake hit.

Two days later, at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, the real quake hit — a magnitude 9.0.

At first, I stayed put in my kotatsu and told myself it was OK. The shaking got worse, though, with a dizzying series of jolts that made it hard to stand. When the furniture started to topple, I bolted from my apartment. The building I was living in was old and I worried it might collapse.

On my way down the outdoor walkway to the street, I saw large cracks ripping through the walls of the neighboring buildings. It sounds weird, but the way the cracks opened and closed in the shaking reminded me of the jaws of a Tyrannosaurus rex. When I got to street level, the shaking stopped and my head cleared. In all, the quake lasted around six minutes but felt much longer. In fact, as we get further away from the date, I sometimes recall the experience being as long as 30 minutes. That could be because, after the initial quake occurred, there were numerous aftershocks that came in rapid succession. I’d never experienced anything like it before.

My landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Kondo, approached me and made it clear that this was the real quake. I hadn’t even thought of the possibility of a tsunami, but Mr. Kondo told me we needed to get to higher ground. We made our way to a hilltop temple called Zenrinji, the head priest of which the Kondos were friends with. Halfway up the hill, Mrs. Kondo asked me if I had brought my passport. I hadn’t, so, with panic setting in and utter disregard to everything I had learned about going back into a burning building at school, I bolted down the hill to my apartment to get it.

The creeping wave: Residents of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, watch helplessly as a wave approaches via the Heigawa estuary after the earthquake on March 11, 2011. | MIYAKO CITY OFFICE / VIA REUTERS

It’s moments like these that panic is not your friend. When I found my passport, I also grabbed other items at random — an empty messenger bag, an uncharged iPod touch — suffice it to say neither were very helpful. (Lesson: Keep an emergency go-bag handy with copies of documents, purifiers, rations, prescriptions, a flashlight, boots and blankets if possible.)

Equipped with my passport, bag and iPod, I ran back up the hill as fast I could to the temple, where I found the Kondos and many of my other neighbors. Looking out over the bay, something caught my eye — it was now completely empty, all of the water gone.

My image of what a tsunami looks like must have come from a lifetime of watching disaster flicks. The waves in those films are almost majestic in how they destroy a city.

Tsunamis are not as sexy as Hollywood likes to depict. Yes, there are the crests, arcs and other accoutrements that Hokusai so masterfully depicted in his “Great Wave,” however, those are far out in the ocean. A tsunami, as I experienced, creeps inland until suddenly it overwhelms you. It wasn’t a deep blue, sprinkled with white flecks of foam; it was muddy black, polluted with the remnants of what it has rolled over — dirt, rocks, trees, homes. Until then, I had never seen such a dominant show of force by my natural surroundings.

The water that had left the bay returned and spilled over the floodwalls. It enveloped the streets and rose higher and higher. It hit the foot of our hill and, with nowhere else to retreat to, we stood staring over the edge praying that it wouldn’t come any higher.

It didn’t, the high ground was safe. After the immediate threat had subsided, my senses returned. I could feel the bitter cold of March, I could smell a rotten abyssal odor and I could hear cries for help coming from below. Mr. Kondo shook me out of a stunned state, gave me some blankets and insisted that we had to help. Two firefighters had fished a man out of the water. He had been swimming around the wreckage of his house, looking for his mother. We made our way down the hill, careful not to slip, and covered the man with the blankets. Then, we helped the firefighters carry him to the temple.

As dusk hit, snow began falling. Across the bay, I noticed fires raging in the industrial district. I stayed at the temple that night. Mrs. Kondo found me, took my arm and led me inside to the temple’s irori (a sunken hearth), which 20 or so people had gathered around. There were three children and two younger couples, the rest were over 65 and a few were around 90. We sat listening to a crank radio for details on the situation, with the elder refugees recalling similarities to the bombing raids in World War II.

The aftermath: A picture taken by a Miyako City employee shows the extent of devastation in the city after the magnitude-9 earthquake struck the region on March 11, 2011. | REUTERS

In less than a day, the place I had called home for the past 18 months had been reduced to a pile of rubble. My world was now contained in the 200 square meters of land that Zenrinji sits on.

After waking up on March 12, I spent most of the morning trying to figure out what was going on. I didn’t have an idea of the scale of the disaster at the time, but we had no power and the toilet was broken.

My neighbors and I were confined to the hill the temple was on for three days following the quake. A pile of debris kept us from accessing the roads into the city proper.

Eventually, I was sent out to forage for food and early in my scouting missions I came across an old man who spoke in a heavy Tohoku accent. He was pointing to a chest and eventually I figured he wanted help opening it. I took a rock and broke it open. Inside was a pile of money, likely his life savings. He gathered it up, thanked me and went on his way.

I eventually made it to a Lawson convenience store that, before the earthquake, was 45 minutes away. It took me four hours to get there. Walking through the streets, I was wading knee-deep through mud and crawling over the remnants of houses and other debris.

There was no food at the Lawson, but I did meet some of my students. The day of the earthquake, I was supposed to be at their school in the town of Taro but had been given the day off because they were taking tests. I asked them how everything was, and they simply replied, “Mō, nai.” (“It’s gone.”)

It’s hard to convey my experience of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in one article. I came across a lot of sad stories, but I try not to dwell on those when I think back on what happened.

Though I was able to let my family know that I hadn’t died in the initial disaster, the power went out and I didn’t speak to them again for two weeks. During that time, there was a lot of cleaning up. I was able to meet a friend on the street and he recruited me to a makeshift team that woke up every day at 7 a.m., grabbed shovels and went out to clear the rubble one block at a time.

I had never seen anything as powerful as that tsunami in my lifetime — and I hope I never do again. However, I had also never seen anything like the solidarity and compassion that I encountered in people in the days that followed. Hopefully, that’s something I will be able to experience again, albeit under different circumstances.

Oh, the Kondos eventually bought a house in the hills where they still live. They told me they preferred not to live so close to the bay anymore.

By Matthew Ketchum, The Japan Times

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