Three Related Disasters (Part 3), by Joe Refugee From Tokyo

After the first few days, it was possible to get some idea of what had happened. The initial numbers of fatalities had been fairly low, and it was hard to know how many had survived in the coastal towns. As the phone systems and many roads there were devastated, a big effort was going to be required just to scope out the damage. Sadly, it became clear that well over 10,000 lives were lost. In terms of life in Tokyo, though, it was electricity and basic supplies useful during disasters that became somewhat hard to come by. The other major factor that seriously damaged daily activity was that many train lines were not running.

I went to work on the Monday after the quake, in many ways just to see how co-workers were doing and what my company was planning to do to deal with the disaster. Many had suffered property damage, but the real damage was to those who had relatives along the coast or near the Fukushima facilities. My wife had relatives in both of these areas, so she spent time on trying to figure out if everyone was okay. They were, but news that a cousin had been forced out of his house due to radiation was a sign that things were looking bad. At first, I wasn’t so worried about Fukushima, and was far more concerned with getting more cash out of the bank and trying to get more supplies for possible disruptions. As it turned out, disruptions were going to become normal, and Fukushima was looking less and less like it was under control, or even within its expected disaster scenarios.

The week after the earthquake was one of verifying that property was undamaged and businesses working to figure out their workarounds for problems like employees who couldn’t ride the trains or the big issue of just-in-time systems having almost no room for failure. And we just had dozens of failures, whether it be destroyed factories and roads, or a new reality of inadequate refinery capacity or electricity. In my case, the initial observation of property damage looked fine, but the shock meant that I missed something. This may be one of the lessons of the disaster. It’s hard to judge things accurately when you’ve just had your life changed dramatically.

During this week, we tried to obtain many things, such as mineral water, and large orders were no longer possible. Small amounts, such as water in supermarkets, were still possible, but that was fading, and vanished once the story about radiation in tap water came out. And a troubling story with a major bank being unable to handle ATM transactions came out. On a personal note, my bank had old banknotes, which was a first. I’d always received new banknotes before. Tokyo Electric announced a rolling blackout system to cover for the loss of power due to the tsunami. This system exempted the central part of Tokyo, and the suburbs had to suffer. The real shock was hearing that the blackouts would likely last for years. A high-tech, just-in-time society cannot function efficiently with blackouts, and the harm to business will be off the charts if this actually goes through the Summer. The loss of electricity and nuclear contamination could end up costing dramatically more than the loss of infrastructure due to the earthquake and tsunami.

As the situation at Fukushima seemed to deteriorate, a rush to get out of the nearby areas occurred. Foreigners generally had a more pessimistic view of the situation than most Japanese, probably due to the different way news described things, so flights out of Japan became ridiculously expensive. Still, I know several Japanese who sent their families outside of Tokyo because they do not trust Tokyo Electric and the Japanese government. Like many others, I decided to spend a week in Osaka to see how things played out, but had too many things to take care of for at least a few more days. A particularly troubling thing has been that it was never clear what was going on, and there are many reactors in question, and even speculations about problems at other facilities. This leads to the question of when one should take emergency nuclear precautions, such as consuming Potassium Iodide. In my case, I had lots of iodine products, such as sea vegetables, as well as products that many recommend for protecting against radiation, such as miso soup. It was clearly time to consume these. It was also time to break out masks and to create a clean area at the entrance of the house. I had N95 masks, but nothing that could be expected to do much for radioactive particles. So part of dealing with this series of disasters was going to be research. (To be continued.)