No Terra Firma

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2005

No Terra Firma A personal account of the Niigata Earthquake

by David Boudreau

An earthquake of magnitude six on the Japanese scale rocked central Niigata Prefecture, on the coast of the Sea of Japan, on October 23. David Boudreau, a software-consultant based in Nagaoka City, filed this first-hand account of the earthquake. The photos appear courtesy of the Nagaoka Shimbun

Outside my fifth-floor condo window in Nagaoka City, in Niigata's Chuetsu region, it looks like the beginning of that Oasis video, with all of these helicopters flying overhead. They're assisting the relief effort for nearby villages hit hard Saturday, and again Wednesday. Occasionally a low-flying helicopter with twin rotary wings vibrates the windows, something we normally would not notice, but we are all hyper-sensitive now, fatigued and stressed.

When Saturday's quake struck, I was using my laptop computer while my wife cooked dinner. She had enough presence of mind to quickly turn off the gas stove, and we scrambled to a doorway. Between the third and fourth aftershocks, we made it to the genkan doorway and had gathered jackets and my wallet. Then we decided to head to the yard of a nearby elementary school. A few hours after waiting through subsequent aftershocks, we helped hand out emergency blankets to our fellow evacuees. By 11 pm, most had gathered inside the school gym for a little warmth. Few people wanted to return home; I know, because I live in one of the newest buildings in the area, and I wasn't going to risk sleeping there that night. I did run back inside to grab some essentials for the night, though.

The original jolts were scary enough. And the constant after-shocks, which harassed us since 5:56 pm Saturday night, wouldn't let us forget our initial terror. The gym shook about once an hour Saturday night; I remember looking at my watch last between 3 am and 4 am. We woke up at 6 am and by 8:00 or 9:00 had decided to return to our condo. My wife is a teacher at another elementary school, and we both went in Sunday to help at the emergency shelter set up in its gymnasium and dialed students and parents to assess damage and announce that classes were cancelled for the week at least. When I got home, I slept for a few hours... a few aftershocks getting me out of bed quickly.

What television broadcasts don't reveal are the stress and the queasy off-balance feeling as if standing on the deck of a ship rolling in a heavy sea; the vertigo; the loss of trust in the floor under your feet. In the post-quake hours the victims know no terra firma.

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