Tokyo Notes

Report From the Quake Zone

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Tokyo Notes

Report From the Quake Zone

David McNeill shares his thoughts from the road as he travels around parts of Japan worst hit by the earthquake.

We had a chance to catch up with Tokyo Notes blogger David McNeill, who is in the area worst-affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

Where are you now?

Right now we’re in Sendai. We’re heading north to the town of Minamisanriku, which I know you’ve heard of. It’s basically been wiped out by the tsunami, but we’re going to get as close as we can. We’re told that the roads are at least partially blocked, either by falling objects or police who have set up a perimeter. So we don’t now how close we’re going to be able to get. Last night we stayed in Fukushima, about 30 kilometres from the nuclear power plant.

How difficult has it been to get around?

It’s been really difficult. We hired a car and the aim was to leave Tokyo at 8 am Saturday morning. But with one thing and another, we were still stuck in Tokyo in traffic at 1.30 pm. We made Saitama (the neighbouring prefecture) by 2.30 pm, but then we caught a break. We tried to get on the motorway, but we were told we needed a special pass that the emergency services have, called a kinkyusho pass.

So we went to a local cop shop and said we were journalists, but because we weren't Japanese they didn’t have us listed as members of one of the Japanese press clubs. But someone checked it out with the National Police Agency in Tokyo and they issued us with one of those passes. So what that means is that we can put that on the front of our windscreen here and we can now get onto the motorways. And that’s great because motorways are entirely empty apart from an army of relief trucks, police, ambulances and fire trucks all making their way in a convoy up north to the affected areas.

How has what you’ve seen so far compared with other disasters you’ve covered?

The motorways are about what I’ve seen before, because I’ve been to Niigata and other places to cover quake damage. So it’s the usual ‘liquorice’ effect, where the roads have become twisted and have erupted in parts. There are parts of the road that have been broken, which makes it dangerous to travel at any speed on them because you can hit a major pothole.

But this morning, when we got down to the coast just outside the place we were staying in, there was severe tsunami damage there. That’s when we got a sense of what it’s really like. Cars have been flipped over, and many of them are pushed back a couple of hundred yards from the sea. The tsunami had come through houses along the coast, and a supermarket and home improvement centre, and pushed everything inside out to the front. So when you see the extent of the damage there, and you imagine it replicated all up the Pacific coast, then you really get a feeling of the scale of the tragedy. It must be enormous.

Are rescuers able to get into the area?

The worst affected area appears to be Iwate, and most of the refugees I’ve spoken to – we’ve just been to the prefectural office – are from Iwate. I was told that most of the people on the second floor of that building were refugees from there. Many of these people just can’t get home, and much of the prefecture appears to be incommunicado, with people not able to get cell phone access, so they can’t reach their families.

Obviously, the emergency services are using the main arteries, which are off-limits to the pubic, and at least along the main routes they are moving quite freely. But once they get off these main routes it’s different. We’ve just heard, for example, that the roads to the village we’re heading to are partially or even completely blocked.

I know this is a broad question, but what’s your sense from the refugees that you’ve spoken with of how people are coping with all this?

They’re sanguine. I think if this was another part of the world then people would be angry about something. But they’re not — I haven’t met anyone who’s angry. I’ve met a lot of people who are obviously tired and resigned, but I think mostly the emergency services are working quite well and people have enough to eat and drink. There’s a level of discomfort of course after sleeping in kids’ gymnasiums. But for now, at least, they seem to have accepted their lot.

The most controversial thing I’ve heard was from one guy I spoke to back in the prefectural office, who works for a cement company. He asked how we’re going to pay for all this, because we don’t have any tax receipts. That’s going to be one debate. The other debate is going to be about nuclear power after this disaster. There’s no disguising that this has been a major disaster in Fukushima.