The closer you are to the area damaged by a disaster, the less access you have to information.
That is how Kunihiko Asai, 59, an official in charge of communication at the fire department headquarters of Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, feels when he recalls the experience of being dispatched to the disaster-hit town of Watari, Miyagi Prefecture, immediately after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The huge jolt and tsunami caused large-scale power outages and interrupted communication services, meaning people weren’t able to get breaking news updates via television and the internet.
“It is dangerous to depend too much on information devices that you normally use. We shouldn’t take them for granted in times of disaster,” Asai stressed.
On March 11, 2011, Asai was working at the fire department headquarters in Okazaki when he felt the ground shaking slowly. He immediately turned on a TV to see what was happening.
At 4:40 p.m. that day, the internal affairs ministry asked Aichi Prefecture to send rescue teams to Tokyo. In 15 minutes, Asai had packed three days’ worth of food and clothing and was ready to go.
A group of 12 officers, comprising a rescue team and a logistic support unit, left the headquarters at 5:30 p.m. As they traveled to Tokyo, they were rerouted to the Tohoku region.
Asai had a priority telephone, which is not subject to connection limitations, so he was completely confident that he would be able to obtain necessary information.
But as they neared Tokyo, communication with the headquarters in Okazaki started to get cut off.
As base stations that relay radio waves for mobile phones were damaged, his phone did not receive a signal. Priority telephones are useless if they don’t get any reception.
“I was scared,” he said, since he didn’t know what was happening in the disaster-hit areas, when a support team would come or whether additional supplies would arrive.
The roads were jammed because some of them were blocked and others were filled with cars lining up to be refueled, and it took them nearly 24 hours to reach Watari.
“I saw cars piled up at one place swept by the tsunami. It felt like we were in another world,” he said. He and his team members, along with other teams dispatched from Aichi Prefecture, searched through mud and debris for missing people.
Around noon on his third day in Watari, Asai suddenly heard a man’s urgent voice coming from his wireless device: “The Fukushima nuclear plant exploded!”
The message came without any information on who it was addressed to and Asai did not know where it came from.
“I thought I would be exposed to radiation and die,” Asai said.
A tsunami warning had been issued in Watari at that time and Asai was evacuating to the rooftop of an elementary school building with local residents. Upon hearing the message, he quickly guided them instead to a classroom and instructed them to stay away from the windows.
They received no information whatsoever after that. They didn’t know how long they should stay there.
The rescue team handed out food supplies to evacuees, but some of the residents left the school building irritated and saying they wanted to go look for their family members immediately.
“I felt powerless, being unable to provide them with any information,” Asai said.
The message that came through on the wireless device was likely about the hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3 of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
An explosion also occurred at the plant’s No. 1 reactor on the day they arrived in Watari, but Asai said they were completely unaware of the incident.
“If we didn’t have the wireless device, we wouldn’t have learned about the explosion,” he said. “The people who didn’t evacuate wouldn’t have known about it. Getting information was a matter of life and death, but it was not available in disaster-hit areas.
“It is necessary to get prepared before disasters strike, including learning first aid treatment and confirming where evacuation shelters are located and how to get there,” Asai said, as such information may not necessarily be available once a disaster hits.
“Since we are living in an era where information is easily accessible, many might be thinking they can look up for information after a disaster occurs,” he warned.
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Jan. 8.
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