March 25, 2011 — The director of the University of Virginia's Studies in Women and Gender program was on the 11th floor of a Tokyo hotel Skyping with her partner in Charlottesville when the devastating earthquake hit Japan on March 11.
"I was actually live-broadcasting this on Skype. I was talking to my partner, who is here, saying good night," Kath Weston told an audience attending Thursday evening's teach-in on the crisis in Japan at the University Chapel.
"When you're in a historic earthquake, you don't know that's what it's going to be," she said. "It starts small."
But Weston quickly realized this was not a small earthquake and hurried to her hallway doorway for protection. "You've got vibration, you've got swaying. And then you're getting these massive jolts – those were unlike anything I'd experienced."
The anthropology professor, who had weathered smaller earthquakes in the 6.0 range, said a young Japanese couple sought refuge in the doorway next door. "It's an interesting moment. … You look into the other person's eyes and that phrase, 'The windows into the soul' starts to have kind of a meaning."
The shaking from the 9.0-magnituude quake subsided momentarily, but was quickly followed by fierce jolts. The trio, who had been holding on to one another to keep from falling to the floor, decided it was best to get outside. "As soon as we got out of the building, it was like the whole thing replayed from the outside. We had a huge aftershock and you could see the buildings moving."
Weston said the moment was incredible. "People were freaking out on the one hand and trying to take pictures with their cell phones on the other."
Her day had started quite normally. She'd done some shopping, having some spare time the day before she was to present a paper at the Asia Global Studies Conference, which was what had brought her to Japan. (The conference was cancelled.)
Now, Weston found herself in the midst of one of the world's biggest earthquakes, one that has thus far claimed more than 10,000 lives. Another 17,000 are missing and feared dead. Weston spent one more sleepless night in the city before flying back to Charlottesville.
Another presenter, Peter Sheras, a clinical psychologist in the Curry School of Education, has worked with the Red Cross and the American Psychological Association as a first responder in a number of natural and manmade disasters. "What is happening in Japan is extreme. We have the triple threat, the triple experience, that perfect storm of the earthquake, the tsunami and the radiation issue," he said.
One of the hardest things for people right now is the displacement they are feeling, he said. "One of the best things to do is to try to get people reunited with people they already know." Creating some regularity for refugees is also critical. "We do interventions sometimes where just having a meal at a regular time in a refugee camp constitutes something predictable, when your life has been taken over by something that is completely unpredictable."
He said it is also important to take care of people's immediate physical needs. "What people often need is a safe place to rest, a safe place for them to recover, and a safe place for them to be with other people."
He cautioned well-meaning people against encouraging victims to discuss their emotional response to a disaster too soon. "Unfortunately, this only serves to re-traumatize people. We are learning a lot about this, especially since 9/11," he said.
He said trying to get people to talk about their feelings – while very useful in the long run, about six months after the event – is not necessarily what you want to do immediately after the event. "When we do interventions at disasters, we're much better off giving out macaroni and cheese, and teddy bears and coloring books than asking people how they feel," he said.
Panel participant and moderator Len Schoppa, a politics professor in the College of Arts & Sciences and a Japan expert, addressed the country's troubled history in the nuclear industry.
"Like every other society, Japan's political system is not perfect, and disasters like this have a way of revealing the problems in the political system," he said, noting that Japan made mistakes in its nuclear regulation, including allowing the beleaguered Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant to be built in a location with a history of tsunamis. "Japan has 54 nuclear plants, most of them in earthquake zones, so it raises the natural question, 'How did the political system allow such an extensive development of the nuclear industry in such a dangerous way?'"
As the Japanese review this situation, Schoppa said they will likely focus on the swinging door between government regulators and the industry. "Japanese bureaucrats have a tradition of retiring at an age of around 50 or 55 to a lucrative, post-retirement career," he noted.
Officials who promoted and regulated the nuclear industry traditionally retire into some organization or company that works in nuclear or electricity areas, he said. "So there have been generations of bureaucrats now who have enjoyed this cozy arrangement with the nuclear industry, which of course has reduced their eagerness to ask the industry to do expensive things that might eat into their profits."
Weston encouraged the audience to attend a 2 p.m. fundraiser for Japan relief efforts on April 3 at Hiromi T'ai Chi in Charlottesville.