My heart goes out to everyone in Japan and in Ecuador affected by the recent series of terrible earthquakes. I was once where you are. My story isn't meant to trivialize or generalize anyone else's; it's just mine.
It is the sound I remember as much as the shaking -- a train roaring under the ground, a zipper larger than a river untangling itself, a tremendous noise made by the living rock underneath us shifting. The earth/the apartment building/the room/the bed began moving up and down, all adding to the sound. My wife, seven months pregnant with our second child, began screaming. I began screaming. I was thrown from my bed. At 5:46 in the morning on January 17, 1995, in Nishinomiya, Japan, outside Kobe, my world changed, what came to be known as the Great Hanshin earthquake.
I crawled to my 4-year-old's bedside, the floor still moving to make the trip of two or three yards uphill. I had not heard her scream. She was motionless on her futon, a heavy lamp knocked from the dresser on to the floor and I had that moment no parent should ever have that single flash of white and heat that lasted that ten hours the one second move to her side took me forever.
She was alright, I was alright, but it took me years, and much help, to fully know that. She's in her 20s now and I still look at her in a different way sometimes.
Stop now, wherever you are, and listen to everything around you made by the 21st century. Refrigerator hum, traffic noise, computer fan, water running, everything around you and try to subtract each away until you find yourself in the kind of silence that must have dominated life before technology. Everything was suddenly silent. The earthquake had taken the current century away in an instant, no water, no electricity, nothing able to move outside.
Outside the silence was bigger than inside, and I saw smoke columns in the distance and a home down the street collapsed. Traditional Japanese homes are built with heavy tile roofs on top of relatively spindly wooden frames. I don't know why. I learned later that a lack of pressure-treated wood building products in older homes meant that termites were common, and so the structure holding up that heavy roof literally crumbled to dust with the shaking. The roof sat, more or less intact, on top of a pile of rubble; in a more comical mood, you could see it as that scene from the Wizard of Oz that claims the first wicked witch. Underneath the roof was everything that had been inside. We knew them as the Tanaka family. Tanaka-san and I had adjacent plots in the community garden, though we never really exchanged more than a few words of greeting and weather prediction. Guy could never get his damn tomatoes right, never more than hard, red stones really.
While many things about such natural violence are universal, some are likely very much something a part of Japan.
Moving off to the shopping street in search of bottled water and batteries an hour after the quake, I saw many stores were destroyed. Some were flattened, others just had windows and doors blown out. But there was no looting, just growing lines of Japanese shuffling through the dust, many in bedclothing, to join a line forming at the convenience store. The damn 7-11 had not only survived the quake, it was open. The lone minimum wage employee stood at the cash register, everything in the store thrown on to the floor around him. He was wearing his uniform, a little trickle of blood down the side of his head.
The line had formed spontaneously, naturally, and the boy was shouting for everyone please to only buy a small amount so that there would be some for everyone. That's what happened. When my turn came, I put two liters of water and a handful of batteries on the counter, and handed over the only cash I had on me. The clerk apologized that he could not make change, took my money, and wrote out a little note with my name and his, saying the store owed me and would pay up once things got back to order.
Neighborhood people gathered in little knots because it seemed like what we should do. We exchanged information and luckily most were OK. We waited for someone -- the police, the fire department, the army -- to arrive and tell us what to do. When no one showed up, people left in ones and twos to clean up apartments and homes. Knowing we had a young child, a neighbor brought over some bottled juice she claimed she did not need.
By day three or four the roads had been cleared enough and a few trains started back into service such that my wife and daughter could self-evacuate to a relative's home far enough away. A doctor there pronounced both healthy. I stayed behind to work, the commute stretching to hours, and leading me to move into my office and sleep on the floor for a few weeks. Around me, centered in the city of Kobe, 6,434 people had died.
It took a very long time for things to get back to what even then we dubbed the new normal. No one understood how long it would take, and a sense of frustration set in, a sense of wanting it all to be over.
The water came back on, the emergency services engaged, things reopened and kids returned to school. My second child was born, and life went on. That spring I went to turn over the soil and get started back in the community garden.
There was that good feeling of renewal, the moist smell of the earth ready. There was the empty plot where Mr. Tanaka was never really able to get his tomatoes to grow right.