Tuesday, August 31, 2004


Today is fine and sunny. The storm has headed up north, and we're baking in hot sunshine with a little breeze to keep the air clean. The humidity is still high, unfortunately (we hoped it would get blown away as it sometimes does after a typhoon passes near) and another typhoon is heading this way along on a very similar path to the last one. But for now, at least, we can relax.

It seems that all of Japan except this area was inundated with rain yesterday. This has happened before - we get heavy rain warnings, and everywhere else is drowning in water, but here stays dry. We got some rain but not enough to cause any sort of mess.

There are large bits of tree all over the garden, which has also been invaded by little tree frogs. There are normally one or two hopping around when I water the garden, but this morning when I went out they were all over the place. I don't know where they came from.

Aside from the bit of fence that vanished early last night there doesn't seem to be any real damage, but I haven't been out to look around the neighbourhood yet. Our block has mostly new houses (except ours and the disaster zone next door) so they were pretty safe anyway. It's the older houses that get the most damage, usually. By 'older' I mean 30 - 50-year-old houses. Anything older than that is likely to be built quite well if it's the traditional style, but newer old houses tend to be very shoddy. Houses here are built to last about thirty years. Ours is an exception. Lucky us.

I have learned the difference between earthquakes and typhoons. Some of these differences are obvious, and other less so.

In earthquakes the major damage occurs very quickly. I think the Hanshin quake lasted about 25 seconds. In that time over 100,000 buildings were destroyed or severely damaged.

In the earthquake, around 6000 people died. In this typhoon, five, the last I heard. (I also heard that there was a huge typhoon several decades ago in this area that killed 5000 people, but I've never been able to find concrete information about it.)

In a typhoon, the major damage occurs over several hours. It seems to go on and on. You hang in there and hope there aren't any major wind gusts that will blow the tiles off your roof, and the 'hanging in there' gets tiring. In an earthquake there is no time to hang in there. It's over before you have time to think anything coherent, and you just go straight into shock.

However, earthquakes also go on and on, but in ways you don't expect because people don't talk about it so much. There are the aftershocks, for one thing. These were occurring every five minutes or so the first couple of days after the Hanshin quake, and the effect was that you stayed terrified. The first big quake is so overwhelming that your nerves are shot anyway, and after that you are kept on edge by the approaching rumbles of aftershocks and the way the ground keeps slipping around under you. Your world has become unstable and untrustworthy. You most basic assumption - that the ground under your feet is solid - is shattered. Even when the aftershocks become less frequent you are still preternaturally alert to sudden movements or sounds. You live for a long time in a state of heightened awareness. This lasts weeks and weeks, because aftershocks are still happening, with decreasing frequency, for weeks and weeks.

The mess after an earthquake is indescribable, both inside and outside. In the case of this typhoon, here at least, the mess is confined to outside. (The mess inside is entirely self-inflicted.) I understand that we were not hit hard and that this is not necessarily true for places that got hit harder, particularly for those people who got water damage.

When a typhoon is over, it's over. It's gone somewhere else. You know you are safe, at least until the next one. After an earthquake the first rumours to start circulating are the ones about how that was just the beginning, this quake was the trigger that will set off a whole series. Earthquakes spawn rumours you would not believe. But you do half believe them. Your world has been turned upside down and suddenly anything is believable. Earthquakes also spawn housework you would not believe, and it's very, very hard to put the furniture upright and put things back on shelves when you are convinced that any minute now it's all going to get thrown around again. The rumours are demoralising.

At least in Japan most of the damage from typhoons seems to be caused by water, judging by the news reports. We were lucky. We didn't get the rain, and since we'd already moved most of the moveable things inside from the garden we didn't get much damage. The bicycles were thrown around a bit, but they weren't damaged. (Well, there is a dent in my front basket, but it's good match for the old dent on the other side of the basket.) In typhoons you have time to prepare. You are warned. You know it will be dangerous outside with all the flying bits of tree and things that weren't tied down, so you stay inside. Inside is safe, unless you are the man whose roof blew off.

Earthquakes give no warning. They crash you out of a deep sleep, don't tell you what they are, and you think the world is ending. If you can think at all, you think, "This is it. It's all over. Goodbye."

Both earthquakes and typhoons are incredibly noisy. But after a typhoon everything returns to normal, more or less.

After an earthquake there is a dreadful silence. When you run outside and call out to your neighbours, "Are you all right? Do you need help?" your voices sound thin and faraway even when you are face to face. You feel that you are crying into the night across a great abyss. The air itself is dead and flat, with an alien, metallic smell, and everything is broken and unfamiliar.

When the sun came up after the Hanshin quake there was no reassurance in it. It revealed a world that had changed in terrible ways. And still that dreadful silence that lingered for weeks, broken only by sirens and helicopters.

This morning the air is fresh and alive and birds are quarrelling in the storm-damaged tree.

Next weekend (probably): Typhoon Songda

Songda projected path