It is a morbid fascination man has with the aftermath of catastrophy. We find the actual events, be they floods, earthquakes, or hurricanes to be frightful, disconcertingly random, and dangerous, but the destruction in their wake – the facts, and the images of death – are as irresistable to us as the flame is to the moth. Our desire to bring order to chaos sees us busily quantifying all we can: magnitude, distance, speed, and missing or deceased. Much like vultures, news agencies feast on the dead; each greedily trying to pick their way to previously unexposed pieces of the body, not long dead. We are responsible – the ratings do not lie – we are buying what they are selling. They are the merchants of death, and we are buying it wholesale.
I live in Tokyo, where the earthquake of Friday, March 11th brought the city grinding to a halt. I was on a subway train beneath the metropolis when the train too was brought to a stand still. An unscheduled stop is rare in Japan where anual delays are measured in seconds, but we were all of us only semi-conscious amidst the dull familiarity of routine. The announcer – privy to the alert from the Japanese early warning system – announced that we had stopped according to procedure regarding the imminent earthquake. The train began to shake in moments, slightly at first, then with increasing vigor. I looked around. People were calm. The shaking intensified and still people remained calm, albeit surprized. A silent uneasiness came over the train then – the car shaking and bobbing on its suspension just enough to worry its passengers. Still, no one cried out, no one clutched at the hand rails in desperation and the illusion of safety. The shaking lessened, then stopped, and relief replaced the tension. An announcement stating we would continue to the next station followed, and slowly the train resumed its familiar track as we sank back into the routine from whence we had come scarce moments before. The scene by the ticket gates spoke of a different earthquake – one that had induced the suspension of service of all trains in Tokyo. The street scene was more alarming still; crowds having gathered in the streets where once cars had driven, evicted from their homes and offices by common sense and the need for nicotine.
I was confused. There have been many earthquakes in my two-year exile in Japan. Some larger than others, but not one of them had produced this startling effect: all of Tokyo was on break.
Whilst walking home the first signs of damage became evident. At eye-level, over-turned potted plants, fallen bicycles, and broken glass could be seen. Tilting my head, cracks in buildings and partially crumbled façades confirmed that this had indeed been a larger earthquake than I believed to have experienced in the subway beneath my feet. The sudden and surreal thought that my own building – significantly taller than these – may not have faired well hit home hard. Turning the final corner home I was greeted by a crowd glued to a television set on display outside the door of the local shop. The news being related was incomprehensible due to the richness of earthquake-speciffic vocabulary I was not taught in school nor had overheard previously in idle converation. The images, in contrast, spoke volumes. I watched, still not fully aware of the scale of what was happening, as a tidal surge (to call it a wave would be a tragic misnomer) of brown water, debris, and the crumbled remains of all manner of objects surged across an unfamiliar land. Helicopter news footage – be it a high-speed chase on a freeway or tsunami rolling across the land – gives the entirely false impression of lethargy in the events portrayed. The water, and everything in it, was moving at an entirely unimaginable speed. It was equally unstoppable as it was devastating. I saw cars, trees, houses and schools, there one minute and gone the next, the water making a mockery of our modern engineering in the same way it would make a mockery of the straw huts of our distant ancestors. Mesmerized we watched as forces the scale of which few can truly grasp wiped away the lives of those beneath the camera lens.
There is tragic irony in the fact that the very planet that sustains us is also readily capable of wiping us from its surface, reminding us of our infintessimal smallness. This is not calculated malice, it is a natural process which grows more frightening with each passing year as our buildings grow taller, our cities grow more crowded, and our dependence on electricity, water, and food grow in turn. As terrible as earthquakes and tsunamis can be, it is the population density of Japan’s east coast that is the single largest contributing factor to the many problems in the aftermath of a disaster. Emergency services are not designed to provide support for entire populations nor are they capable of combatting fear, panic, or logistical issues on a scale such as this.