The strong earthquake that struck the Kanto region Saturday reminded Tokyo residents of the city’s vulnerability to natural disasters — and left them wondering what would happen if the capital is hit by the long-anticipated Big One.
A government council estimates there is a 70 percent chance of a magnitude-7 quake hitting the southern Kanto region — which includes the areas hit by Saturday’s quake — in the next 30 years.
The quake, which registered a maximum of upper 5 in the Japanese scale of 7, halted many trains and subways in Tokyo for hours.
In numerous major terminal stations, exhausted children sat on the floor while impatient passengers pressed station workers for information about when services would resume. People who could not wait any longer formed long lines waiting for a taxi.
Even though the quake hit late on a weekend afternoon, the platforms at JR Tokyo Station were as jammed as a weekday rush hour an hour after services were halted due to the 4:35 p.m. quake.
“There was a big thrust from underneath as I was aboard the train. I initially thought the train may have hit somebody because it suddenly came to a halt. I’m at a loss because I don’t have anywhere to sit and rest,” said a 22-year-old man who was trapped on his way to Kawasaki.
A 12-year-old schoolgirl from Adachi Ward, Tokyo, was stranded at the station on her way home from a camping trip in Nagano.
“My parents are at home, but I can’t reach them on my cellular phone,” said the girl as she sat on the concourse floor. Adachi Ward was the area most severely hit by the quake.
Areas around the ticket gates at JR Shibuya Station were also jammed with people waiting for the Yamanote Line to resume. People had trouble getting information, and some were seen angrily asking station workers which train lines were moving.
“I have to arrive at Ueno Station within an hour in order to catch a train back to Fukushima, but the trains don’t come and buses do not move an inch either because of the traffic jam,” lamented a 47-year-old housewife from Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.
“I did not know that public transportation system is so vulnerable to quakes,” she said.
At Shin-Kiba Station in Koto Ward, a junior high school student collapsed after becoming sick in the crush caused by the train service disruption.
In a high-rise condominium in Chofu, western Tokyo, all four elevators were halted, forcing residents to climb the stairs.
“I am surprised that the system is so weak against disasters. This is painful,” said a gasping woman carrying shopping bags as she walked up to her unit on the 33rd floor.
In Adachi Ward, Chiyo Takahashi, 69, recalled how she heard the earth rumble as she was watching a TV program.
She tried to stand up but faltered when the strong quake hit the area. When she managed to move outside, the power cables were waving and her neighbors were also coming out of their houses.
“It was lucky that the temblor did not last very long. But I am worried that this could be the precursor of a major earthquake,” Takahashi said.
Yoshimitsu Okada, head of a planning division of the National Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, said the link between Saturday’s earthquake and the long-anticipated Big One is not clear.
The energy of a magnitude-7 quake is said to be roughly 30 times larger than a magnitude-6 quake.
Aside from a magnitude-7 quake, experts estimate that a magnitude-8 quake like the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hits the Kanto region in cycles of 200 to 300 years.
Some experts say the region has entered a phase of medium-scale quakes before the next megaquake, and Okada of the institute said Saturday’s event “may be part of the long-term trend.”
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