Awesome power of nature

By Raffique Shah
March 20, 2011

Raffique ShahI WAS watching a World Cup cricket match on television when I decided to see what was happening in the world. For me, that means switching to BBC, sometimes CNN, but never Fox News. When I saw “breaking news” on the screen, and images that looked like something out of a movie, I paid immediate attention. Massive earthquake in Japan, reporters were saying, as cameras (or video footage) showed huge walls or swirling water smashing everything in their paths. Tsunami!

Jeezanages, I thought, this cannot be happening. Peeved over the UN’s failure even to clear the rubble in Haiti more than a year after devastation there, and with the big hit Christchurch suffered mere weeks ago still fresh in my mind, I could hardly believe what I was seeing. The forces of nature are indeed awesome.

As the day wore on here, and night enveloped Japan, people were trying to digest the horrendous effects of an 8.9 earthquake followed by a giant tsunami. BBC reporters stood on still-shaking ground (aftershocks measured up to 6.8!) to bring to the world the grim reality of what parts of one of the most powerful nations on earth were reduced to, quite literally.

In the midst of this melee, there were comical moments triggered by some local journalists, always on the hunt for a “scoop”. They pestered people at the Seismic Research Centre: will we have a similar earthquake here? Will the tsunami reach Trinidad and Tobago?

Really, even a cub reporter should know that no one, not even seismologists, can predict earthquakes. It just happens. Yes, this country and many Caribbean islands sit atop or close to “fault lines” between tectonic plates. Sure, we are more likely to experience tremors or big quakes once these plates start acting strangely anywhere in the world.

Here was a quake halfway across the world from us, and they were asking stupid questions. Some radio journalists anxiously asked if the tsunami would reach Trinidad. I mischievously imagined walls of water crossing the wide Pacific Ocean, rushing through the narrow Panama Canal, flushing into the Caribbean Sea, and crashing into the hapless islands in the region, Tobago and Trinidad included.

Anyway, comic relief in troubled times takes one’s mind off the sheer scale of this disaster. Blame it on this month’s “super moon”, as some lunar-mongers would have us believe. I know the moon does have an impact on many earthly phenomena. But I refuse to believe its closeness to Earth at this time spells doomsday for our planet.

Back to the disaster in Japan: there are lessons in it for us, if only we would pay attention to how the people there coped with the twin disasters that struck them with near-satanic force. First, there was panic, screaming, scurrying to safety, as can be expected in such situations. Hell, if I were caught in such maelstrom, I’d probably run faster than Usain Bolt, and bawl louder than Anil Roberts.

What was not surprising was the relative calm that prevailed among the victims even as aftershocks continued. We have always heard about Japanese discipline and culture, their resilience as a people, how organised they are to face calamities. Now, we are seeing these characteristics play out, and maybe we can learn from them, although I harbour doubts about my own people.

There was some panic buying of foodstuff in the aftermath, especially when the nuclear reactors started…er, acting up. There were hours-long queues at petrol stations, too. But I watched fascinated as victims who lost everything—their homes, family members, cars—quietly queued up for food. People who took refuge in cold shelters were fed small “balls” of rice, which they ate without complaining. No rush. No cussing. No blaming “de govament”. Their exemplary conduct and their discipline in the face of adversity are qualities we should try to emulate.

Because of freezing temperatures, little fuel, icy roads, and in instances no roads, the authorities are finding it difficult to get relief supplies to where they are sorely needed. As the people suffered in silence, their worst fears over nuclear power plants surfaced to add to the dangers they faced: meltdown and possible radiation leaks.

While those who live close to the affected plants were evacuated, others had little choice but to remain where they were. As I write one week later, there are still grave concerns over how the nuclear saga would play out. Japan’s government has summoned all the technical help it could source in trying to contain damage to the reactors. We can only hope they would succeed and there would be no meltdown a la Chernobyl.

There is a benefit in this for us. In neighbouring Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez was toying with the idea of constructing nuclear power plants. In the wake of what’s happening in Japan, he has said he would seriously re-consider the nuclear option. I hope he never goes down that route, not only because we live so close to Venezuela. That country, like ours, has so many “green” and “renewable” power generation alternatives, it should consider these rather than risky nuclear plants.

As our hearts reach out to the Japanese people in distress, let us also try to learn from their trauma since we too live in an earthquake-prone zone. One reporter who braved the hazards and encountered victims who still managed to laugh, asked one old man: how can you? He replied, “We laugh with our faces and we cry with our hearts. I can’t think of the future. All I can do is deal with this moment.”