CS President Recounts Japan Earthquake Experience

LOS ALAMITOS, Calif., 18 March, 2011 -- As Japan continues to struggle from the devastation of the 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami and nuclear crisis, IEEE Computer Society Sorel Reisman reiterated his concern for the Japanese people.

When the quake hit, Reisman was at Narita International Airport after wrapping up an eight-day trip to Japan that included meetings with Japanese colleagues and a speaking engagement at the annual meeting of the Information Processing Society of Japan. His monthly video blog was shot in the outdoor gardens of the Tokyo Sheraton Hotel on 11 March, just hours before the temblor struck.

The account of Reisman's experience with the earthquake and its aftermath follows:

"I am not a Japan-based IEEE member, but I am a US-based member who was in Japan at the time of the earthquake and tsunami. More specifically, I am the President of the IEEE Computer Society, and was visiting Japan to meet with officers of our sister society, the Information Processing Society of Japan, and to speak at their annual meeting in Tokyo. As well, in Kyoto I met with the President Elect of another sister society, the Information Systems Society, and with the officers of the Kansai CS chapter. 

"At the time of the earthquake my wife and I were in the departures terminal (top floor) at Narita airport, doing some last-minute shopping. As a resident of Southern California, I am not unfamiliar with earthquakes, but this one was terrifying. Unlike the ones that I’d experienced in the past, that usually hit hard and stop quickly, this one started slowly and got stronger and stronger, and went on for what seemed like forever. As things were crashing off the shelves and walls around us, there was lots of time to think - about where we should hide, whether crouching on the floor was a good or a bad idea, and even more “fatalistic” things. Then it slowed down, and finally stopped. People stood up and just stood there, staring at each other. Everyone was shocked; then some of the shop keepers starting cleaning up. 

"Announcements in Japanese told us to leave the building, but people just wandered around, and it wasn’t for about 15 minutes, when airport staff started ushering us out onto the ramp outside the terminal, that we actually did evacuate. And everyone was very orderly, no pushing. Within minutes of the evacuation, while we were standing on that ramp, there was a huge aftershock, that we learned later, was a magnitude 7.1. That was more frightening than the first shock because we were on a third floor ramp, and could see the pillars holding up roofing, swaying back and forth. Memories of the San Francisco earthquake in 1989 came to mind, when the freeway collapsed on to the roadways below, and killed hundreds trapped in their vehicles. The staff immediately ordered us to walk the quarter mile or so down the ramp to an open area near a parking lot where there were dozens of parked busses. Again, we all walked calmly down the ramp, with no panic, although there was plenty of reason to panic. 

"People milled around at the bottom of the ramp, many with smart phones, learning first that it was a 7.1 earthquake, a 7.9, and later, even larger. Then we heard about the tsunami, although no one could have imagined what that turned out like. Everyone speculated on when or if our flights would still depart, or what was going to happen. Airline staff in touch with their offices had no better information than anyone else. After a couple of hours of standing around, we learned that all flights into and out of Japan had been cancelled. Many, especially airport staff, weren’t dressed for the weather which was getting colder as it got dark. When the rain started, the crowd moved towards and onto the parked busses where the bus drivers invited us to get warm and use the toilets in the backs. Although there were police around to prevent anyone from going back up the ramp and into the terminal, there was no information regarding what was going to happen next. In retrospect, although there seemed to be a sense of “crowd wisdom” moving us from one circumstance to the next, there must have been some leadership moving us along. There were probably thousands of us in that crowd. 

"While sitting on the buses, some of us were able to access Wi-Fi on our laptops, and start watching CNN and other news broadcasts. That, and cell calls to our friends inside of Japan and to other countries were our main sources of information about the earthquake and tsunami. We had essentially no information about our own local situation. We sat on the busses for about 5 hours, and through that whole time, aftershocks kept hitting, bouncing the buses up and down. About 8 or 9 p.m., the bus drivers started a convoy and took us out of the airport, around many ramps, and back into the airport, back to the departures building; we were told that we would have to leave the busses - our warm and cozy respite from the unknown. When we pulled up to the terminal, there were dozens of uniformed staff people waiting for the buses, and as we got off, each of us was given a new sleeping bag, a bottle of water, a box of Ritz crackers, and some chocolate. We were told to find a place to “camp out” for the night, on the floor of the terminal.

"The organization and the efficiency of the staff at the terminal was amazing. Apparently, officials used the hours from the time of the earthquake until we returned to the terminal, to assess the damage and decide whether and how we could use the building as a temporary refuge. There was little apparent damage to the building, aside from broken water pipes with some localized flooding, and a cordoned-off area where ceiling tiles had crashed to the floor. The power was on, large screen TVs were showing the horrible tsunami pictures, washrooms were fully operational and spotlessly clean, and trash bins were emptied, it seemed like every hour. Except for hundreds or maybe even thousands of us camped out everywhere on the floor, the complete absence of airline staff, and the constant aftershocks, you would never know we were in the middle of a disaster, and that thousands were being killed 180 miles away.

"The emergency airport staff were incredibly patient and of course, very polite. I was even able to exchange some US currency for Yen to use in the food machines. We had spent our last few Yen moments before the quake, buying those last minute gifts. People were searching around for a good place to camp out – you didn’t want to be near or under glass, or under decorative ceiling hangings in case a large aftershock hit while you were sleeping – or trying to sleep. A huge problem for many of us was the need to recharge our cell and laptop batteries, but there were lots of outlets available, if you were clever and didn’t mind crawling around in strange and unusual places. It seemed that few minded!

"I plugged in behind an NTT kiosk, where I had to use an adaptor to connect to their power source. When I unplugged the next morning, I forgot the adaptor. When we finally returned to the terminal a few days later, I went to the kiosk and asked if anyone had found the adaptor. Sure enough they had, and happily returned it to me!

"Sometime around 5 a.m., people who had tried to sleep woke up and started lining up at airline counters to wait for airline staff to return, to try to rebook flights. We had no idea what was going on, if there were going to be flights or not, if we could stay in the terminal or not, or how to go anywhere if the terminal had to be evacuated. There were no trains or cabs or transportation into or out of the airport. I saw one very smart know-it-all person from the day before, who told everyone that he was going back to Tokyo, lying there on the floor, along with all the rest of us.

"After a couple of hours, airline staff did arrive and everyone patiently waited in line to try to rebook flights. We learned that we would have to wait three days for the next available flight from Narita to Los Angeles, and that we would have to fly first to New York. We grabbed the booking. But then what? Fortunately for us, I was in cell phone contact with Angela Burgess, the Computer Society Executive Director, who secured a nearby hotel for us two nights later. No rooms were available that night. I have never experienced such a feeling of helplessness. Apparently the hotel was reluctant to book new rooms the first day after the earthquake because they weren’t sure about the safety of the hotel and the degree of damage. But they soon determined that the hotel was safe, that we could stay, starting that night, until our scheduled departure. The hotel was about two miles away, but we were prepared to do the hike, towing our suitcases behind us. But of course we didn’t have our bags because they had been checked in before the quake.

"But despite that, after booking our flights, the airline accompanied us through customs, where we were able to collect our baggage. It seems that our baggage had cleared customs and was now ‘no longer in Japan.’ So we had to find and identify it, and bring it back through Japan customs, into the country! All of which we did. And by the time we had done this, we discovered that the hotel was running a shuttle to/from the airport. What a relief. What an even bigger relief to check into the hotel, and get into a room where we could hide, collapse, and watch the horror on CNN, of what had taken place in the last 12 hours or so.

"The next day, ironically, was probably the calmest we had the whole time we were in Japan. Our friends in Tokyo told us that things were relatively normal in the city, and it would be OK to come back if we could. But we weren’t going to leave the airport area, despite their assurances, even if all the trains and buses had been running which of course they weren’t. Because there was nowhere to go, we simply walked around fields and woods behind the hotel, and watched the occasional airplane take off, wondering who the lucky ones were. We wandered into the village of Narita and had a nice touristy day, visiting the centuries-old Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. Except for barricades around the very old buildings, to prevent people from being hurt in the aftershocks, and despite its being Sunday, there were very few people around. When we saw the occasional English-speaking wanderer, especially an American, we regaled each other with our personal plights, sharing tales of the day before, and wondering how and when we would get home.

"That evening, news of the nuclear reactor problems started to be reported, and increasingly we became worried about the effects of possible reactor meltdowns. The next morning we decided to take the shuttle bus to the airport to see if we could get an earlier flight out of the country. The hotel had announced rolling power outages to begin at noon. At about 10 minutes before noon my cell phone rang showing a US 800 number. On the line was American Airlines who had been nagged by a friend in California and who was also on the line, to find us an earlier way out of the country. They told us to get to the airport by 1:30 p.m. and we could get on a 4 p.m. flight to LA. Within minutes we were packed, rushing to the elevator where a hotel staff person told us the elevators were unsafe and we had to carry our bags down the 11 flights of stairs. With his assistance, we made it down, were at the airport by 1 p.m., and on our way home on the 4 p.m. flight. Lucky for us that we got that flight because our Japan/NY/LAX flight, scheduled two days later, along with most of the other flights, were cancelled. 

"Today we watch CNN from the comfort of our homes, worry about our friends and colleagues in Japan, and wonder what we can do to help them. While stories about radiation spreading beyond the epicenter and tsunami site, are frightening, we thank our lucky stars that we here in Southern California are relatively unaffected. So far."

The Computer Society's conference staff is reaching out to assist upcoming conferences scheduled to be held in Japan. The 10th International Symposium on Autonomous Decentralized Systems (ISADS 2011), scheduled for 23-27 March in Tokyo and Hiroshima, Japan, has decided to postpone the event. The conferences staff is monitoring other scheduled events in Japan and will provide updates as warranted.

About the IEEE Computer Society

With nearly 85,000 members, the IEEE Computer Society is the world’s leading organization of computing professionals. Founded in 1946, and the largest of IEEE’s 38 societies, the Computer Society is dedicated to advancing the theory and application of computer and information-processing technology. The Society serves the information and career-development needs of today’s computing researchers and practitioners with technical journals, magazines, conferences, books, conference publications, certifications, and online courses. For more information, visit http://www.computer.org.

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