For survivors of Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. Northeast, the Sendai tsunami in Japan and the massive earthquake in Chengdu, China, the scars of disaster are still palpable. I’m part of a group of journalists brought together by the East-West Center in Hawaii to see how the people and environments hit by these catastrophes are faring, one year, two years and five years later. We began our tour on Sept. 29. Here are the other posts in the series:
Storm warnings that work — a lesson from Sandy
Hard questions for Breezy Point homeowners a year after Sandy
Disaster Candy in Japan
When the high ground isn’t high enough
Signs of commerce return to “The Town That Disappeared”
Earthquake-scarred Sichuan village reimagined as tourist hub, memorial
A panda baby boom, five years after Sichuan earthquake
On the afternoon of March 3, 2011, Japan’s public television network NHK was broadcasting a session of parliament live when warning chimes and a bulletin flashed across screens: “This is an earthquake early warning,” an announcer said. “Beware of a strong earthquake … The Tokyo studio is shaking right now.” When the picture switched to the studio, the announcer continued to speak in a calm voice. This was common practice, meant to avoid causing panic.
That changed after the 3/11 disaster, which included an earthquake, a tsunami and the nuclear power plant accident at Fukushima. Now, news presenters may shout their warnings, said Takehiko Kusaba, director of of media strategy and cooperation in NHK’s news department. Shouting, he said, can save lives if it helps people evacuate quickly. The language can be uncharacteristically harsh for Japanese television, as tough as a simple, “Go away!”
The expected height of the tsunami used to be included in warnings, but that too has changed. Now presenters can use words like “huge.” A more specific forecast might encourage people to calculate how high above sea level they are, and to figure out whether they could survive the waves.
Ayumi Yanagisawa, an NHK correspondent in the earthquake zone, was reporting in a coastal area, talking to a fisherman, when the ground cracked under her feet. She continued reporting, got to higher ground and within half an hour, she said, “The whole town washed away in front of me.” The full effect of the trauma didn’t hit until about a year later, when the same cold, snowy weather as on 3/11 brought back memories of the day. “If I see a tsunami next time, I’m not sure I could continue to cover the story,” she said.