The enormity of disasters like the ongoing catastrophe in Japan, where an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, the strongest in Japan’s history, and its subsequent destructive tsunami and aftershocks have laid waste vast areas, can be difficult for the individual to conceptualize. Historical and newsworthy articles written about disasters are often dry, factual and practical accounts, most often devoid of emotional content or clarifying adjectives.
Although the average person can see by the accumulating totals of the dead, the injured, the displaced, the financial loss to business, the number of homes destroyed and so on, there is little to connect the interested or concerned observer to the tragedy at hand. But witnesses to the event add another aspect to the story, providing a human connectivity to what has taken place.
As the numbers of dead in Japan are estimated to go beyond 10,000, according to Japanese officials, and two nuclear reactors were damaged (with one close to a meltdown), the impact of loss is beginning to hit home as the adrenaline and shock wears off.
As authorities take note in the aftermath of missing towns and trains and rush to respond where needed, the tales of the earthquake illuminate the personal horror of Friday:
* “They feel like the entire world is a gigantic theme park ride, except much scarier and with no known end.” — Harrison Payton, outside Fukushima (writing about the aftershocks in an iReport to CNN)
* “Oh, it was a terrifying sensation. The only way I could describe it (is) like a sustained sense of vertigo. The entire floor was shaking almost like a carnival ride or something like that. Only you never knew when it was going to stop. And it only lasted for about a minute or so, but I can tell you, it felt a lot longer than that.” — Matt Alt, an American living in Tokyo (on CBS’ “The Early Show”), describing the “tremor to remember
* “The first quake was very long — everyone in the office was screaming. Then we had another long one about 30 minutes after that. Paper and items were falling off the desks. We can hear the walls. We can hear the walls going back and forth.” — Ryosuke, from Tokyo (eyewitness account recounted to BBC)
* “Buildings swayed. … I was in the street, it was like walking across the deck of a ship at sea. People were shocked, some dropped to the ground in fear.” — Roland Buerk, BBC reporter in Tokyo
Videos and visual images have been all over YouTube, news websites and aggregate blogs, effectively documenting the uncertainty and fear that such an event can engender. Videos like that taken by an apartment denizen show the anticipation of the coming earthquake and the continued shaking, while other videos recorded the devastating influx of water as it rushed ashore. Commentary, narration and eyewitness accounts bring to life not only what occurred and what was captured in images but what was and is experienced about the events unfolding, somewhat enabling the observer to share — to vicariously feel — the experience as well.