Friday, April 8, 2011

Things, We Didn't Know - tohoku earthquake part five

The subject of the text message was simple: 'Run!'


With this one word all the thoughts I'd fallen asleep to came crashing back into my head. My friend had spent the night thirty miles up the road in Yonezawa. 'We'll go further today, if we can,' he said.

If we can?...

In my head it sounded right out of a movie, too dramatic to be real. And he wasn't the only person I knew who was already heading west, away from the nuclear reactors leaking God-knows-what-if-anything into the air. A co-worker of mine, one of the sharpest and most level-headed guys I've ever met, had also hit the road. He too was with his family, making his way toward the Sea of Japan, unsure of their destination, living out of their car. 'Just to be on the safe side,' he said.

This made everything seem both more sane and more weird.

An explosion at a nuclear reactor is not welcome news, particularly when it comes from your own backyard. Holy shit I heard myself say as I stared at my computer screen, head blank except for those two words and a full-color apocalyptic image. But nothing else I had found made mention of anything like casualties, evacuation orders or even a general warning beyond a glib 'stay inside'. That a nuclear reactor could explode without frying the surrounding area let alone the entire hemisphere was news to me, and the thought crept into my head that either no one knows for sure what the hell is going on or else they're just not telling us.

'Those cars were there at six o'clock this morning,' my wife said as we congregated for breakfast. She pointed out the window and past the veranda at three cars parked along the stretch of visible curb. 'What do you think?'

'I want pancakes,' my son said, stepping carefully (more or less) past the dishes and glasses and appliances crowding the kitchen floor.

It was a little before nine. On a normal day the stores would still be closed; for the past two days nothing had been open. 'Waiting for something,' I said, not sure what they might be waiting for until finally it hit me: 'Gas.'

The closest station was easily three hundred meters away. I knew we didn't have much in our tank; we would have driven out to my wife's parents' place otherwise. Better fill up as soon as we can, I thought. Just to be on the safe side.

Three hours later I was out at the curb listening to a woman tell me she'd been waiting in line since eight.

After breakfast, with my wife watching the news and my boys playing with trains and cars and noisy things made in China, I'd gotten back to googling for anything I could find. Reports about the reactor situation hadn't changed, but there was now a designated area within a certain radius of the Daiichi complex where people were being told to stay indoors. 'A precautionary measure,' or so went the story.

That vague fear I'd first felt on Friday night returned.

I did some research on the reactors - their construction, their innards and their age. I found out that the reported explosion had likely occurred and only impacted the upper chamber of the reactor; good news in that the main compartment remained intact, bad news in that this upper area was where spent fuel rods were being stored. Radioactive material was now leaking into the air. It might have been a disaster in the making. It might have been nothing, at least to us, fifty miles and one mountain range away. Maybe this will happen, maybe that won't. Stay inside and keep your windows closed within twenty kilometers.

Outside I saw two people, my neighbor from across the street and a girl riding her bicycle. They both wore white masks over their nose and mouth. I spoke with a friend on the phone: 'The wind will blow in from the ocean,' he explained in precise English. 'We will have acid rain tonight.' The television told us the same, in between reports of a rising death toll and clips of Yukio Edano, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, saddled with the unenviable job of telling the nation and the world just what was going on and what they were going to do about it. I scoured the Net for information on the buses and trains running out of Fukushima; most pages had no updated schedules posted, a couple indicated all service had stopped. Nowhere could I find what I wanted to hear.

My inbox overflowed with day-old messages of joy and relief that we were okay.

A friend of my wife's stopped by with a can of baby formula she'd just picked up for us. She had a mask on, as did her three-year-old daughter. She'd be leaving for Sendai the next day, to be with her family. 'Are you staying here?' she asked.

The line of cars outside our balcony wasn't moving. I couldn't remember if the ones there now were the same ones I'd seen at breakfast. 'I'll be right back,' I told my wife and ran out the door.

Four hours the woman had been waiting. She looked equal parts calm and worried and resigned. Behind her the line of cars stretched out of sight; beyond the traffic light up ahead they disappeared around a corner. I started jogging, then running, cutting through the parking lot of the electronics store to the side street that ran past the back entrance to the gas station. The line of cars stood like a disrupted funeral procession; a quarter mile down, past the park with the sandbox my son loved to go to, the row of cars bent left, then left again to run back up the main road and into the gas station's front entrance. A mile of waiting cars, easily. Plus a crowd of people at the kerosene pumps. Men wearing the gas station's logo on their backs worked frantically. Two of them started scribbling on large pieces of cardboard.

申し訳ありませんが、ガス売り切り。We are sorry, no more gas.

Life had become a movie. The movie had turned into real life. The world I knew had ceased to exist, replaced with something that I did not feel a part of, even as I began wondering how the hell I was going to escape. I ran back down the road, across the empty parking lot. One of the lucky ones sped through the dead traffic light at the corner. My neighbor had gone inside. From the couch my wife looked up at me. 'What did you find out?'

I looked at her. I looked at my boys. I looked at Yukio Edano.