Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The inescapable reality of nature

The blog stats tell me that a few people who read this are from Japan . Tonight my thoughts and prayers are with them. I started getting emails from friends in Tokyo within 15 minutes of the quake striking NE Japan. Most people who will read this have probably never experienced the power of a large quake. Japanese live with earthquakes the same way people in Buffalo live with snow or people in Oklahoma live with tornadoes. They are part of the ebb and flow of daily life.

It was interesting how my friend's distinct personalities came through even in the short emails they sent about a tragic event. One was in an understandable panic and worried about his family since he could not reach on the phone (he now knows they are fine). Another likened the experience to a carnival ride and joked about not being able to "get a cab". He grabbed some snacks and decided to sleep in his office with some of his colleagues - an earthquake pajama party of sorts. Another sent me "business like" updates during his several  hour walk home. Each person seemed to have two goals - confirm that their families were ok and start the process of getting back to normal.

Yesterday's quake was massive and tragic. Although CNN headlines it as the "biggest earthquake in Japan's history" this seems more of an attempt at drama than the reality of the situation. Japan has a long history and the ability to measure earthquakes is a relatively new development. No one knows if this was the biggest quake in Japan's history. Countless major quakes have occurred over the centuries. Does everything need to be ranked? Ok - the largest quake in the history of recorded quakes......

While the full impact of yesterday's seismic event can't accurately be measured yet; "greatest quake" or not - the human toll will be much less than the great Tokyo quake of 1929 or the great Hanshin earthquake that hit our former hometown of Kobe in 1995. The fact is the Japanese are a remarkable and resilient people that deal with life on their shaky ground in an incredibly effective manner. Japan's building technology developed over generations certainly saved thousands of lives  today.

During my family's time in Asia we experienced many quakes. Our first year in Kobe we were rocked by a 6.8 quake that had our earthquake proof apartment building moving back and forth on the rockers built into the foundation.. The windows were open and from our 19th floor apartment I could hear screams of terror from  Kobe residents on the street below. Two minutes of rocking seems like an eternity. Many of these terrified people were related to or friends of  one of the several thousand Kobe residents that died in the 1995 quake.

Quakes became an accepted (if not enjoyed) part of our life in Japan. After five years of experience even a large quake became something that was noted with respect rather than fear. One day playing golf in Tokyo, I had a final hole putt shaken by a quake and asked if a local rule allowed a "do over". No mulligan putts in Japan.

We were fortunate to miss the 2004 Tsunami by just a few hours as a ski invitation had us move our departure from Malaysia up by one day. We were in transit in Singapore when the reports came in that the island we were on the day before was in the path of the tsunami. A friend of ours was washed out to sea that day and his body was not identified for several months.  There was a lot of discussion at the time about the SE Asia countries not having a Tsunami warning like Japan does. Perhaps the Aceh tragedy could have been minimized.

In 2008, my Shanghai office was rocked by the Sichuan quake that killed tens of thousands. Our office staff in Shanghai had never experienced an earthquake and wanted to rush out of the shaking building - the exact wrong instinct. It was an incredible experience to shake as much as we did when the epicenter was over 1,000 miles away.

The images streaming in today via satellite tell a story but only those who have seen the tsunami wave coming at them or felt the sickening sound of pitching or collapsing buildings can fully appreciate this manifestation of the power of nature.