Thursday, April 26, 2007


A strong earthquake hit my island this morning. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged. But, for 15 terrifying seconds, my heart stopped beating.

It happened at exactly 9:03 a.m. I was sitting at my desk in the staff room, sipping a cup of tea, when the ground started vibrating. It was a low, steady tremor at first. I looked up from my book to see if anyone else was feeling it when, suddenly, the whole building started shaking violently. It felt like we were sitting in an airplane that had hit a pocket of rough turbulence.

Everyone dropped to the floor and dove under their desks. I jumped out of my chair but I didn’t know whether to get down on the floor or run out of the building. So I stood frozen beside my desk and held on tight.

The most frightening part was the noise. The sound of the bookshelves banging against the wall, the sound of the windows rattling in their frames, the sound of panic in the teachers’ screams. And then, just as suddenly as it had started, the earth stopped moving.

The teachers popped up from beneath their desks. They all started speaking in rapid-fire Japanese and I swear I understood every single word (“Oh my god!” “Is everyone okay?” “An earthquake!” “That was scary!” “So scary!”).

It took about 15 minutes for my hands to stop shaking and my heart to stop pounding. Later, one of the teachers told me we were lucky it wasn’t a major earthquake.

“This school is dangerous,” she said.

She explained the school was built on a rice field and that the ground was very soft. She said the building was old and falling apart. And then she pointed at the thin cracks that criss-crossed the floor and snaked up and down the walls (I can’t believe I didn’t notice the cracks before!).

During class, I couldn’t stop staring at all of the cracks on the floor beneath the students’ desks. I realized that if this morning’s earthquake had been more serious, the school would have collapsed like a house of cards and we’d all be buried under a pile of rubble right now. (How many other unsafe schools are there in Japan? How can one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries allow older public schools that aren’t up to code to remain standing? Shouldn’t these schools be rebuilt?)

Of course, the first thing I did when I got home this afternoon was google “Shikoku” and “earthquake.” And there it was. This morning’s earthquake was international news. It turns out it was a magnitude 5.4 earthquake and I wasn’t far from the epicenter. Scary!

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