Posted in Japan News

Holding A Breath for 24 Hours

It started with just the news. Everyone at my school murmured on Wednesday how Typhoon Hagibis might still swirl away from us. Faxai didn’t hit Tokyo last time, and most teachers were hoping it would just go the hell away. I even said as much on Facebook that I was torn. On the one hand, I would’ve loved to have a day to sleep in, but on the other hand I needed to finish and print off my midterms.

By Thursday night, it was obvious from all the various weather radar sites that the Typhoon #19 was heading straight for us. Most of my Japanese co-workers and friends weren’t nervous, but also were a little nervous. It’s the kind of hesitant nervousness that comes with the years of experience in living through various typhoons. Nobody wanted to seem like they really cared, because who cared about typhoons really? Shrug, nervous laughter…check the radar at your desk when no one is looking.

However, the news proclaimed this typhoon would be unlike any other typhoon we’ve seen in the past decade. It wasn’t slowing down like most typhoons do, and it was going to cover most of the country with torrential rain and whipping winds. By noon on Friday, my school announced there couldn’t be any school on Saturday. JR East was already planning to shut down trains by 13:00!

It was kind of shocking. Up until this point, trains usually would shut down at 16:00/17:00. We all kind of expected the same time frame this go around, with most teachers expecting half a class day. Nope! We were told to not come to the school at all! Even full time and homeroom teachers were exempt.

A co-worker and I planned on a possible typhoon video game day. I would go over to hers, and we’d keep each other company through the storm.

“If the trains aren’t crazy,” she said.

“Yeah, we’ll have to see in the morning.” I shrugged and checked my phone as it buzzed again with another news pop up. “But it looks like the trains will be up and running? It should be fine.”

“Yeah, it should be.”

It’ll all be fine. Everything will work out. We’ll be OK. These storms never really hit Tokyo…

All these little reassurances we kept telling ourselves, because in actuality we weren’t entirely sure. It reminded me of Kentucky in the fall, with tornado season bringing hail, sleet, thunder, lightning, winds, and that blasted anticipation.

I hate the waiting of it, very similar to that sensation of when you’re just about to get on a roller coaster. You’re waiting in line, and waiting, and then you’re standing at the gates. Suddenly, you’re at the loading dock, and you’ve got to take that last step.

A big distinctive difference between the two is that I can choose not to get on a roller coaster, but I cannot choose when a typhoon is going to hit or how bad it will be when it does arrive. My anxiousness wasn’t at all helped by the charge in the air. If you’ve ever lived in a place that gets storms, then you know that charge. It’s that taste of rain on your tongue, the electric sizzle that’s just there, waiting to bust into action. As the barometer gets ever higher, that tenseness wraps around you and squeezes.

As I left for home on Friday night, I decided to stop by Don Quijote. I think everyone was feeling it. People were panicking, frantically calling their spouses and family over cell phones. The bread was gone. The milk was gone. The frozen foods were gone. Oddly enough, the canned food section still had a plethora of beans, tomato sauces, and etc. I shook my head and grabbed a bunch of canned chick peas, red kidney beans, mushrooms, and peas.

All the cup noodles were basically pillaged.
Even the onion bread was gone.
The meat, too.

Perishables would go bad very quickly in the event of an actual natural disaster. My mother taught me a long time ago that in a true survival situation, go for the cans. At home I already had emergency water and a first aid kit. I grabbed some batteries for flashlights (also in the emergency bag), and miraculously got a few bag of snacks for the maybe typhoon party.

I walked home quick. I knew I would need to cover my windows with cardboard. Even though my sliding windows were thick and made to withstand the full force of a typhoon, I knew my neighbors had a horrible habit of never taking their potted plants or laundry poles inside when a storm was set to hit us. Along my walk, I saw many people taping up their windows, pulling down shutters, or putting up actual wood planks like I’d seen in the news for hurricanes in Florida.

The whole neighborhood put down their shutters.
A nursery close to the station taped all their windows.

As soon as I got home, I grabbed the duct tape and cut up cardboard boxes to fit the huge Leopalace windows. I was a little too short to get all the way up to the tip top, but I figured it was a good enough job. The cardboard was just meant to keep the shattered glass from coming into the apartment, anyways, not be actual support.

I was sending out texts and messages as I worked. My friends were batting down the hatches all over the country. I let my family back home what my situation was and my plans. Thankfully, the work exhausted me enough that I could sleep.

In the morning, I was hit with a surprise. Even though JR East announced trains would be shut down by 13:00, apparently subways and other private train lines were already shutting down before then. My co-worker asked me not to try and get over to her place.

“I don’t want you to get stuck half way!” she told me over LINE.

To put things into perspective, last time a typhoon knocked out trains, JR East blundered the execution of their plans a little bit. The train company shut down trains at 17:00 on a Sunday, and promised that trains would resume at 8:00 the next Monday. It caused a lot of havoc, with people waiting in lines for hours to try and get to work or school. This time around, JR East and other companies weren’t taking any chances. They went with being overly prepared and simply shut it all down.

I checked both the train and bus schedules online. Sure enough, I realized that it wasn’t a guaranteed trip. I could very well end up stuck. I agreed with her and decided to just wait it out at my place. Left to my own devices, I decided to clean like a maniac.

The news of a tornado hitting Chiba was the first sign that Hagibis was definitely not going to be like any other typhoon. I noticed it hitting Japan’s Twitter News first. It was something to see, just this huge twister taking out buildings. The first confirmed death for Hagibis came from that tornado.

My phone buzzed and sent alarms at midday to inform me in Japanese on the Hagibis’ progress. Luckily, I can read Japanese kanji to a degree that I can glance at the emergency alerts to figure out where the alerts are supposed to cover and which ones I can ignore. I knew other people weren’t so well versed, so I stopped cleaning and went to work.

I sent out alerts to some Stonewall Japan pages so people could get information in English. I also sent out Tweets of English information. A lot of J-Vloggers and bloggers were doing the same, trying to get information out there so people wouldn’t be caught unaware about the situation.

NHK World was doing live coverage in English, which was a move I applauded. I appreciated that Japan Times and Japan Today kept regularly updating their information as well. I was glad to see that within our small foreigner community everyone was rallying to try and prevent another tragedy.

Then, the earthquake hit. At first, I just thought to myself, “Oh wow, the wind is really picking up!” When my picture frames began to bounce against the wall and my ceiling light swayed, I realized it wasn’t the wind. I ducked under my table just to be safe, because it felt like not a big deal…but I wan’t 100% sure because of the storm. It came and went, and I marked it as a 3 on the scale.

Sure enough, it was a 4 coming from Chiba and a 3 in my area. Called it! All the same, it didn’t help my already frayed state of mind. Three natural disaster-like events in one day, and all so close. I moved my emergency bag to sit right at the front door, and threw some clothes into my other backpack. Just to be super, duper safe.

In the early evening, the wind hit hard. I checked out my front door intermittently just to see what the wind and rain looked like outside. At one point, I opened my door and saw the sky was green. I promptly shut the door and said, “Not today, Satan.”

For those of you who don’t know, green skies mean bad thunderstorms and tornadoes are inbound, as in “you got minutes to find shelter, bruh.” I got lucky, though, no tornadoes for my area. The rain came of and on, off and on, either completely soaking the whole area or trailing off. I listened to it in between forcing myself to just relax and watch Netflix on my laptop.

I knew I couldn’t do anything, not yet anyway. My flood map showed a low chance of flooding. My alerts for evacuation were for the elderly, not for me, and not even for my specific area in Tokyo. I continued to retweet and put up messages I thought were useful, but otherwise I couldn’t do anything else. I texted my coworkers and checked in on a few friends, but it was just a waiting game.

Typhoon Higibis finally arrived at 21:00, and it hit hard. The rain suddenly dumped down, just swish, swish, swishing all over the place with the winds. My windows knocked a bit in their settings, but didn’t leak or break at all. I refreshed my flood maps and kept reading the evacuation alerts as they came. Honestly, I knew by that point it was useless to try to evacuate anywhere. If the river near my apartment overflowed, I wouldn’t be able to run out by this point. I had to just kind of hope I was making the right call to stay.

Regardless, I move my bags up into the loft area just in case a flood did decide to hit. All my electronics were charging up there anyway, so it just made sense. I stayed up in the loft, eating the snacks meant for a party, and watching the news. I heard about the community center that denied the homeless man shelter. It sickened me to think of someone getting turned away to sit on the street with just an umbrella and a “gambarre!”

And then an alert I never saw before popped up from Yahoo News. Puzzled, I searched for the kanji and my eyes went wide when I saw, “Volanic Eruption Warning,” come up. I thought, “Surely not Fuji?!” and nope, not Mt. Fuji. It was Sakurajima, all the way across the country. I was mad. I lived nowhere near there, why did my phone send me an alert for Kyushu?!

Around midnight, the winds decreased in velocity, although the rain stayed. My flood map and radar showed me that my area in particular was going to be spared from flood waters. To the west of me, dams were getting opened and the rivers overflowed to prevent dams breaking. To the east, a city not even that far away from me was being told to get to higher ground because the coastal lines were no longer safe. Somehow, I was sandwiched into a safe pocket that needed no evacuation or run away option.

I finally let out that metaphorical breath I’d been holding. The red parts of the radar shifted upwards to Saitama, and even though I was still in the yellow bits, I decided to call it a night. I sent my family messages that I survived and didn’t need to evacuate. If anything changed in the morning, I would call. I sent my last messages and so on, and finally went to sleep.

I got startled awake two or three times that night from my phone alarms. Once again, though, these alarms were meant for Sendai. Sendai is no where near me. I glanced at the kanji and rolled over. Just as it always tends happen, I fell into nightmares because my sleep got interrupted. I couldn’t remember them, just the general feeling that I was suffocating.

Finally, the next morning, I woke up to sunlight and the sound of children laughing. I checked my phone. All of my friends were safe. My coworkers were good. No need to worry. I let out a breath. I could breathe normally again.

I took down the cardboard. I put the grab bag back on the shelf. I made myself breakfast and a nice big pot of coffee. I knew I was supremely lucky.

As I scrolled through the news reports, I knew it could have been so much worse. My river was one of many on a system, placed about three or four dams away from the coast. Thank God for human ingenuity and for advanced weather warning technology, otherwise the death toll would’ve been catastrophic.

As it stands, about 70 people have lost their lives to the storm. Homes and damage to cities are being rebuilt and repaired, but there are bridges just gone. The tornado in Chiba plus the typhoon hit an already suffering part of Japan that was affected by the last big typhoon. Stories are coming in that reflect how Hagibis really was a horrible storm, but so many people were sparred because of the advanced warnings.

Now, some people are claiming the preparations were “too much” or an “overreaction,” but I disagree completely. It was easy to feel the might of that storm, and all it would’ve taken was one broken dam and a city would’ve been completely wiped off the map. Evacuations were necessary. Shutting downs trains was necessary. It was all absolutely necessary. The death toll isn’t this low because Hagibis was nothing; it is that low because there was a chance we could’ve lost everything.

Thankfully, I’m fine, but some people are not as lucky. Donations are being accepted for rebuilding efforts by the Japan NPO Center and Peace Winds. If you’re interested, the Japan Red Cross accepts monetary donations or they are always in need of blood donors. Please be careful and don’t give to any kickstarter or gofundme that claims to give funds to people in Japan! Kickstarter and Gofundme aren’t countries on the list that can start fundraising through those sites.

And if you’re worried about the next typhoon, check out this article to give you an idea about what to do.

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