We were in the town of Furano in the prefecture of Hokkaido. It was 3:08 in the morning and my wife and I were deep in sleep after a day of touring. Suddenly, our cellphones (which were on silent) began to sound an alarm similar to that of a fire truck siren. The alarm was blaring and it permeated throughout the city through the town’s loud speakers. Along with the alarm came a notice in Japanese saying “Emergency Earthquake Warning!”
Two seconds later, the room began to shake. It was a tremor that shook us both horizontally and vertically. Jolted from our sleep and still dazed, we realized that we were in the midst of an earthquake. We tried to think rationally while still in shock. We remembered earthquake drills from childhood that told us to roll on the floor to the nearest table and take cover beneath it. Problem was, the table in our room was too small to fit even one of us. We had no choice but to stay where we were — on the bed. The earth continues to shake for what seemed like 3 minutes. In reality, it shook for some 55 seconds only. My wife and I embraced each other and said a prayer. We hoped the building was structurally sound so as not to collapse.
The violent tremors finally ended. Darkness enveloped the entire city as electricity was cut off. Still in our night clothes, we rushed out of our room and grabbed only our passports. We left everything behind, including our money and whatever valuables we had. In the hall, we saw other guests of the hotel, mostly Japanese, rushing to the fire exit, making their way to the ground floor. We met our travelling companions there, in shock, just like us. We all decided to follow the mad rush downstairs realizing that the building could still collapse.
All but a few of the hotel guests gathered at the lobby waiting for news. Hotel staff tried to assuage the jittery nerves of guests by saying that the worst was over. Guests were apprehensive to go back to their rooms for fear of aftershocks. An hour later, we relented and went back upstairs. There was still no electricity or water.
Thankfully we were leaving for the Sapporo in a few hours. Surely, Sapporo would have electricity, we thought. It is the capital of Hokkaido, after all. We had no idea how serious the situation was.
We checked out of the hotel at nine in the morning, boarded our van and made our way to Sapporo. As we drove out of the city, we noticed long lines in every convenience store. People were hoarding food and water. About 90% of all gas stations were closed and the few that were opened had at least fifty cars lined up for petrol.
We assured each other that the situation in Furano was isolated since it is a provincial town. Sapporo would be better.
As we drove towards Sapporo, news bits began to trickle in through our smart phones. Only then did we realize how grave the situation was.
We found out that the earthquake registered 6.7 in the Richter scale and that its epicenter was 68 kilometers east of Sapporo. The quake had ruptured highways leading to Sapporo and caused several cars to be half-buried in the rubble. In the town of Atsuma, tons of earth tumbled down steep mountainsides, burying houses and farm buildings below. The landslide ripped through homes and buried others. Eleven died, 366 were injured and 30 were unaccounted for.
True enough, police blocked the last six kilometers of highway leading to Sapporo due to ruptures and gaping holes on the tarmac. We had to take a detour through farmlands. Waze proved to be a good navigator.
We finally reached Sapporo and the city was in crisis mode. The blackout and water supply cut-off was in full effect there too. Supermarkets and eateries were closed, as were all other retail shops. The city of 1.9 million people had no food or water, except for whatever inventory was left in convenience stores. The lines for the remaining food stocks were longer than that in Furano. Inside the stores, the shelves were empty, save for a few packs of junk food here and there.
Military personnel in flatbed trucks rationed water to residents. Some 25,000 members of the Japanese armed forces were deployed for rescue and relief operations.
Since our group was booked in a five star hotel, we assumed that they would at least have a power generator. We looked forward to eating a hot meal.
What greeted us in the hotel lobby was a specter you wouldn’t expect to see in a country like Japan. The hotel had no generator. Apparently, having one is not required, nor common in Japan. The lobby was a blanket of human bodies — hungry, thirsty and disheveled. Hotel guests that were checked-out were stranded as both the train lines and airports were closed. Guests who were already checked-in didn’t want to stay in their rooms for fear of aftershocks.. Those about to check in had to climb some 25 storeys to get to their rooms since the elevators were out of service. Everyone ended up staying in the lobby.
By this time, it was about 2 pm and we had not eaten for 18 hours. Our travel group of 10 went out in search of food.
A Lawson convenience store was among the few that didn’t allow panic buying. They rationed stocks to customers. We lined up for about an hour and a half to have our turn to buy food and water. We were able to purchase a limited amount. We then headed to Odori Park where there were benches to eat our meal, recollect and regroup.
We then scoured the city for a hotel with a generator. There were none.
Authorities shut down the main thermal power plant at Tomato-Atsuma due to damages. They also shut down Hokkaido’s nuclear power plant to make sure there were no radioactive leaks. Newsfeeds said it would take them more than a week to restore power.
Meanwhile, the city was at a standstill. No planes, trains or gasoline paralyzed the supply chain of retail establishments. Workers had no means of transportation to report for work. We were told that the only hope for re-electrification was if a coal-fired power plant, last commissioned in 2012, could be reactivated. Thankfully, it was put online 36 hours after the quake.
We were scheduled to leave for Tokyo the day after. Due to the closure of the airport, however, we missed our flight to Tokyo and our connecting flight to Manila. On the day of our cancelled flight, we headed to the airport to make alternative arrangements. What greeted us there was another nightmare.
Like us, tens of thousands of marooned passengers trooped to the Chitose Airport to rebook their flights. It was impossible to move inside the airport due to its shoulder to shoulder conditions. Even if we waited six hours for our turn to be serviced, the soonest flight we could get was five days after. We had to find other ways to get to Tokyo.
This is where my hardworking secretary, Rosette Tingin, came to play. She suggested that we find flights through airline websites using its book and buy option. Airlines, evidently, do not pre-sell all their seats on commuter flights. It is customary for them to save some for book and buy passengers, willing to pay a premium for last-minute bookings.
Rosette spent the entire afternoon looking for seats. It was a frustrating exercise since available seats would be sold seconds after they were put on sale. She finally confirmed a flight through Jetstar Airlines set to depart two days later.
Our next problem was booking the connecting flight from Tokyo to Manila on Philippine Airlines. It will be recalled that Osaka’s airport was also closed due to floods. Hence, all flights from Tokyo to Manila had long waiting lists of stranded passengers from both Sapporo and Osaka.
We spoke to the people from PAL and they completely understood our situation. They spoke to us like a caring uncle would. They said they would do all they could to put us on the soonest flight to Manila. The PAL people acted with compassion and urgency — we could not ask for more. It was at that point when I understood that “the heart of the Filipino” is indeed PAL’s strongest competitive advantage. Later that day, PAL called to say they had seats for us in two days. We had to spend a day and a half in Tokyo — but it was fine.
The moment we saw PAL’s A330 with its sunriser livery parked on the tarmac on the day of our flight, we knew we were home.
Our experience in Hokkaido was a wake-up call. It made us realize how important it is for us Filipinos to be prepared, especially since the “next big one” due to strike Manila is more than a hundred years overdue.
Various websites tell you what to do during an earthquake. I highly recommend every family study them and conduct their own drills. It could spell the difference between survival and perdition.
Let me share other insights my wife and I gained from this experience.
• Natural disasters are democratic. No matter your race or status in life, in the end, we all feel the same fear. Our survival instincts are all the same.
• No amount of preparation can ever save you from the trauma brought about by death and destruction. So, it’s important to be prepared not only physically, but also mentally.
• Every family should have a grab bag ready in case of emergencies. The bag should contain your passports, some cash and important papers like land titles. To have a grab bag packed with water and energy bars is ideal.
• Know the disaster protocols of your building, village or barangay. At the very least, know where the evacuation site is. There you will find medical care, shelter and food.
• Having insurance policies for your homes and factories will make it easier for you to recover, after a disaster.
• The authorities and relief personnel all want to do their best in a disaster situation. None of them set out to be rude. The high-stress situation is not their fault — so be kind. They are just as scared as you are.
• Even in the midst of a disaster, The Japanese were polite and disciplined. They line up for hours outside convenience stores to buy food and water and no one made a scene. A disaster does not give you license to act without civility.
• Being with friends and loved ones during disaster situations makes it more bearable. To extend help to them will lessen your anxiety. To be helpful to others benefits you, as it does them.
• There is nothing like Pinoy humor. We smile… we laugh even in the most dire circumstances. It is our way of coping. It is one of our best traits.
• Finally, pray about everything and anything. It works.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist