Semi-exclusive report from our intrepid correspondent in Japan, Hunter Brumfield

As you know, the far-flung news-gathering empire of has brought you exclusive reports from Bahrain and Honolulu. We are on the spot while it’s hot. First with the burst. And all the rest of that boastful hyperbole I like to steal from Robert Heinlein.

Now, I bring you a report from Our Man in Tokyo, Hunter Brumfield. Hunter was the editorial page editor at The Jackson Sun in Tennessee when I went to work there in 1975 fresh out of college. He moved to the Far East a quarter-century or so ago, so he is now an old hand. I call him “old hand” because he answered one of my Tweets the other day by reminding me that I should refer to a middle-aged man as another middle-aged man. So there.

Anyway, here’s Hunter’s report:

Friday, March 11, 2:46 pm
Eiko and I were at home when I noticed a light tinkling sound from our “earthquake alarm” — what I jokingly call the Texas cowbell wind chime made for us by my brother-in-law in San Antonio. We keep it inside, with a small collection of other glass chimes, since we don’t want our apartment complex chieftains coming down on us for creating a public nuisance.
I started up my cellphone camera video function, figuring I might catch something interesting. A few moments later the

Hunter Brumfield, and a lady from those parts.

cowbell was loudly clanking, and I realized that this shake was far worse than any I have experienced in my 28 years here, plus nearly 3 years as a child when my father was stationed in Tokyo in the mid-50s. (Back then the lights seemed to go out at the slightest tremor, to my big sister’s and my excited delight.)

This time, the movement quickly built until I found myself dodging wine glasses a cabinet began tossing at me. Here’s the video on You Tube, which also appears in CNN iReports.
The jolting stopped after about 2 minutes. As soon as we could start moving again, the broken glass at my feet — our only damage — was quickly cleaned up and we began watching reports by white-helmeted TV newscasters. We also tried to call Eiko’s mother but the cell network was overwhelmed by callers who like us were checking on their loved ones. (It remained unusable until after midnight, but email, and even local calls over Skype, never failed.) After it was clear the worst was over, Eiko went to her mother’s apartment on foot and found a cheerful but very resolute woman, who, despite her 94 years, had spent the intervening time preparing an earthquake grab bag with food, batteries, and water — including for Eiko and me — and was ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
On TV we were captivated by scenes of vessels of all sizes leaving port in Tokyo and Yokohama. This was easily within 20 minutes of the first jolt, and before long we could see them fighting a strong tsunami surge as they tried to clear the breakwaters. Some could be seen colliding as it was apparent that they had broken free from their moorings with no crew on board.
Other scenes from relatively near us were of burning parking lots of jumbled cars, including on the rooftop of one 11-story building, followed by exploding fuel storage yards near Yokohama, about 30 miles southwest of our home in eastern Tokyo.
Meanwhile, reports started coming in about the devastation that was occurring in Sendai, 140 miles northeast of us. The most dramatic videos came in over the next few days, but sitting there in our living room within an hour of the quake, we were appalled as we watched live aerial video from one helicopter as the black tsunami waves washed over farmland, sweeping everything in their path.
I was quickly contacted by my old newspaper in Jackson, Tn., to relate what had happened to us. We were on the cover the next day, Saturday.
Over the following two days the story focused on finding the dead and helping survivors. These constant reports were interrupted at times by aftershocks — more that 300 of a noticeable size in the first three days, now down to about 10 a day (three so far this morning). When that happens, a loud chime sounds on TV giving usually a 30-second warning before the shaking can be felt by us. Most come from the same general area of the original epicenter. Others, in some ways even more alarmingly, are from a seismically active region about 60 miles on the OTHER side of Tokyo, closer to Mount Fuji. Fuji-san last erupted in 1707, coating Tokyo with ash.
We stayed home and inside, basically forced to by the disruption of rail and subway service that caused many employees to walk home from work (a few people I know more than 10 miles), while others spent the night on the floor of their offices. Temporary stoppages still occur whenever there is another aftershock. Traffic was basically frozen from massive street congestion. Eiko waited several days before walking to our nearest grocery store, “because I don’t want to [contribute to the sense of] panic,” she told me when I suggested we should go. When we finally did, rice, ramen, milk, and bread were completely gone, but most other foods were still available, and the supply has improved since. We still have had no luck getting gas for our car, though we have not really needed it.
Beginning with the weekend the news of the earthquake and the struggle to find survivors began to be supplanted by the immense difficulties bringing the six reactors of the two tsunami-damaged nuclear power plants in Fukushima under control. Efforts to reduce heating of spent fuel rods have been hit and miss. But basically they have made headway, after Tokyo firefighters and Japanese military brought in water-dumping helicopters, heavy deluge equipment, and relief crews to spell the heroic and potentially fatal struggles of plant workers. Highly gratifying assistance has also come from the U.S. military and dog-assisted international search & rescue teams.
As you have probably been hearing, information on what is happening with the Fukushima nuclear reactors has been confusing and incomplete. In my own mind, what we have been getting from CNN and others has been even worse, as commentators fly in — and almost as quickly fly out — try to figure out what is going on, then fill their reports with scary half-truths of their own invention. When I saw my blood pressure hit 214/170 I knew it was time to reduce my dose of CNN — I started referring to Anderson Cooper as “Chicken Little Cooper” after one near-hysterical report* — and now see that I have not been alone in my disgust with the foreign press.
*It seems Chicken Little Cooper left Japan soon after that display, in which he blurted to an “expert” he was interviewing back in the States, “Well, should WE get out of here? What should WE do?!”. I used to like him.
So that brings us now to Friday, 14 days later.
Friday, March 25, 9:30 am
Despite what we’ve been told in the news, a “radioactive cloud” has not [yet] swept down on Tokyo, much less Seattle, there is no “mass evacuation by foreigners,” and no “nuclear explosion.” And while a few people I know have taken unplanned holidays to Hawaii and elsewhere, most folks I know have elected to stay put. Several extremely helpful websites and maillists have sprung up, including by some foreigners who have their own amateur monitoring stations that appear to confirm the official (thus less believable) government radiation reports.
These monitors all show that radioactivity in Tokyo IS slightly up, but so far well under the amounts considered dangerous, even for long-term cancer risk. People flying to escape danger will receive much more radiation exposure from high-altitude cosmic rays, etc. than if they had remained here. My favorite comparison suggests that you already receive some exposure from your “hot” spouse sleeping next to you, and from eating (imported) bananas.
In terms of certain foods, like spinach and milk in which low levels of radioactivity have been found, the government has banned their sale from the affected area. Even if you did imbibe some, it is not enough to cause any ill effects. One friend sent me a link to a blog post that said quaffing red wine is thought to reduce the effects of radiation exposure. Any excuse, in my mind!
[The bulk of this was written before the sobering news yesterday that Tokyo health officials were cautioning that pregnant and nursing mothers and infants should not drink tap water (nor formula prepared with it, in the case of babies) due to the newly determined presence of radioactivity. While this is yet thought to be within safe limits for adults, the long-term danger to infants could be quite serious, almost double the limit considered safe for newborns. This morning Japanese newspapers said the “quarantine” against drinking Tokyo tap water had been suspended.]
My favorite part of all this, to the extent that anything at all has has been comforting, is how well the Japanese people have coped with a combined disaster of this scale. Any one of these horrendous events — the earthquake and its aftershocks, the tsunami that has left as many as 23,000 dead and missing, the out-of-control nuclear plants —  would have likely caused massive panic in other countries. (In fact, the only scenes of public panic I have caught were videoed in China of buyers clamoring for iodized salt thought to reduce the ill effects of radiation that might blow their way.)
Here, friends and family have told me that where they were forced to spend that first scary night on bare concrete floors there were no displays of anger or fear, only acts of kindness.
I love what that says about not just Japanese, but about what we ALL can potentially rise to under similarly trying circumstances.
Meanwhile, happy to say, our Texas earthquake alarm has on the most part gone quiet.

Oh, and to be perfectly honest, he originally wrote this for someone from his high school class back in Texas. That’s why it’s just semi-exclusive.

Excellent report, Hunter. And awesome video.

3 thoughts on “Semi-exclusive report from our intrepid correspondent in Japan, Hunter Brumfield

  1. bud

    Wow! That video was remarkable. After Hunter stated it was at least a 5 it got considerably worse. I wonder what the equivalent reading was in Tokyo? A 7.0 maybe?

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