Recurring shocks

Print edition : April 22, 2011

Before the stark reality of nature's naked fury became clear, Japan was in for other problems.

in Singapore

A Greenpeace member monitoring radioactivity levels at Iitate village near the Fukushima nuclear plant on March 27.-CHRISTIAN SLUND/REUTERS

MISFORTUNE, an old adage says, rarely comes alone. On March 28, an offshore earthquake with a suspected magnitude of 6.5 on the Richter scale jolted nearly the same areas in Japan that had been devastated by a 9.0 oceanic temblor and an associated tsunami of ferocious proportions on March 11.

The quake, which was felt as far away as Tokyo, was later described as one of the March 11 temblor's 60-odd aftershocks with intensities of six-plus on the Richter scale in just over two weeks. There were no initial reports of deaths and destruction traceable directly to the March 28 quake.

Although it occurred at a shallow sea depth off the Miyagi Prefecture, one of the areas worst affected by the March 11 temblor and tsunami, the new aftershock did not produce a significant tsunami. A very moderate tsunami spared the Japanese people of further misery.

Staggering as the statistics of the March 11 tragedy were, the unfinished saga of relief and rehabilitation was still being overshadowed by the radiation crisis at and near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, as of March 28. In knocking the multi-reactor facility out of action, the March 11 temblor and tsunami have left a trail of sci-fi style radiation puzzles and problems.

The initial images of the destruction caused by the temblor and the tsunami presented a tale of human tragedy that was, somehow, concealed by the dramatic visual saga of how nature had made an utter mockery of the artefacts of modernity. Gradually, however, the stark reality of nature's naked fury became clear.

By March 26, officials estimated that nearly 10,500 people could be confirmed dead. Another 16,600 were still listed as missing, although the chances of finding them had all but disappeared. Japan's cultural traditions and its official attitude of being conservative or circumspect in such matters accounted for the hope, almost against hope, of finding a significant number of those missing as brave survivors. The folklore of miracle survivors got strengthened slightly by the detection of a young boy and his grandmother among the rubble several days after the horrific quake.

Relief and rehabilitation

The scale of the tragedy was such that economically developed Japan did not fight shy at all of carefully considering offers of assistance from a wide array of countries. North Korea, which tends to portray Japan in the worst possible light at any given time, made it a point to express sympathy and offer help. The United States, India, China, Australia and others were among the first to offer aid.

An Indian relief and rehabilitation team, arriving in Tokyo on March 28, immediately set off for its mission in the Rifu-Cho area, which was among the worst-affected sub-regions of the Miyagi Prefecture, north of Sendai. The self-contained team, which would not have to depend on local facilities for any of its relief and rehabilitation efforts, was expected to spend at least 10 days clearing the debris, repairing houses, distributing high-energy biscuits to children and generally restoring normality.

As a composite team with medical personnel and others, the Indian squad was among the more conspicuous foreign helpers.

Alok Prasad, India's Ambassador to Japan, said the relief and rehabilitation mission was modelled on the priority indicated by Japan itself. Earlier, India had supplied 25,000 blankets and 10,000 bottles of drinking water, supplies that came in for appreciation from the Japanese side. In the immediate wake of the tsunami and the temblor, the embassy authorities managed to trace several Indians who were scattered at various evacuation shelters and help them reach safety.

AN ELDERLY WOMAN in a classroom at an elementary school that is being used as an evacuation shelter in Otsu town in Kitaibaraki.-ISSEI KATO/REUTERS

The story of Japan's response to the latest natural disaster was laced with layers of heroism of one kind or the other on the part of the search-and-rescue teams and empathy between them and the survivors and a sense of fraternity among the survivors themselves. The authorities established a number of shelters for those who had lost their homes and for those who had to vacate a 20-km radius around the Fukushima nuclear power plant. For a number of survivors, the evacuation centres soon turned into a halfway house towards a future that was yet to be discerned.

The enormity of the rescue and relief efforts had to be judged in the light of the raw force of the tsunami that followed the temblor. It was estimated that Minami-sanriku in the Miyagi Prefecture was devastated by a 16-metre tsunami tide, said to be of an unprecedented magnitude.

The hospital and the town hall in the heart of that settlement was hit by tides as tall as 12 to 14 metres, the tsunami having spent some of its energy along the way on land. The settlement was already dotted with tsunami-resistant structures, built on the basis of Japan's previous experiences in managing natural crises of relatively lesser magnitude and Tokyo's previous scientific assessment of the seismic volatility of the Japanese archipelago.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, survivors called for a new look at tsunami-resistance parameters, even as officials said the confirmed death toll, as of March 26, in the Miyagi Prefecture alone was nearly 6,600.

In the coastal town Rikuzen-takata in the Iwate Prefecture, a 13-metre tsunami is believed to have submerged a gymnasium where local residents had tried to take shelter immediately after the temblor. These and other graphic accounts of the tidal height and velocity of the tsunami left the survivors at a loss to comprehend what really had hit the nation.

Adding to the trail of death and destruction at the time of the temblor and the tsunami was the continuous barrage of radiation concerns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The first signs of radiation were detected in air, but the levels were thought to be of no adverse consequence to the people of Japan and neighbouring countries. What followed was a more serious scare about radioactive pollution of some water sources, including, most notably, the tap water in Tokyo which was declared unfit for being fed to babies.

All the while, the Japanese authorities emphasised that the prohibition was a precautionary measure. However, residents in Tokyo and elsewhere did show signs of some panic, rushing in to buy and stock bottled water. As a result, the authorities stepped in to order huge quantities of bottled potable water.

Another scare

Even as the people were being told later that the radiation levels in the tap water had dropped into the all-safe bracket, another scare rocked the country. Seawater near the nuclear plant was now declared contaminated by radioactive substances which could be traced to the discharge from the power station itself.

The scare was particularly bad news for those who variously depended on the seafood industry, besides of course the seafood consumers. Assurances of no immediate health hazard, as confirmed by the World Health Organisation, did not quite ease the scare as regards not only seafood but also the radiation-hit food products and dairy produce in Fukushima and some other prefectures.

An interesting episode amid all these scares was the manner in which the Japanese owner of a seafood enterprise, whose base was devastated by the temblor and tsunami, helped his Chinese workers who spoke little Japanese. Maybe, such real-life stories may help tone up the bilateral relations, especially at the people-to-people level, between Japan and China.

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