A Quake, a Wave, a Blog–a Night to Remember

A year ago tonight, I was indulging in a routine: Having finished my evening’s work at KQED News, I was home watching KTVU-Channel 2’s “Ten O’Clock News.” (Yes, unwinding after work by taking in more news.) About 15 minutes into the show, one of the anchors said a powerful earthquake had been reported in the Pacific near Japan. The first thing I thought: They just had a pretty big earthquake right there (and looking back now, that earlier quake was a 7.3, about 100 miles east of the city of Sendai. As best I can recall, it caused no damage or tsunami).

A USGS graphic depicting the hundreds of aftershocks that followed the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that hit northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

A while later, the show aired live video from Japanese TV. The anchors weren’t clear on where in Japan the pictures were from or what they showed. What you could see was an urban scene, with traffic stopped on a large bridge in the distance—that was all. A few minutes later, the same scene. This time, you could see something flowing under the bridge—debris, boats, even small buildings. It was hard to make sense of what was going on or to understand just what that brief glimpse of an unknown city in Japan might mean.

Then at some point late in the hour, the anchor read a magnitude estimate: 8.8. I thought immediately of the 8.8 quake that struck off the coast of Chile in February 2010, damaging cities hundreds of miles from the epicenter, unleashing tsunamis, and killing more than 500 people. This new quake would be devastating if it was anywhere near Japan’s coast.

I called my son and daughter-in-law in the South Bay. Sakura is from Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, and I just wanted to see if they had heard about the earthquake. They hadn’t yet, and Sakura started trying to contact her family (she soon found out that the family home, about 180 miles from the epicenter, had suffered violent shaking, but no major damage).

I’ve long since become a victim of CNN fatigue, but this night I switched to cable news after the local news ended. The meaning of those first enigmatic pictures became instantly clear: a tsunami of unimaginable power was ravaging the coast of northeastern Japan. Every news channel showed views of water rushing across fields and highways, smashing harbors, even inundating an airport. The waves were dismantling villages. In larger towns, whole neighborhoods seemed to be on the move. I wrote an item for News Fix wrapping up some of the notable coverage I was seeing and posted it at midnight. At this point, the story was still something happening on the other side of the world.

But something I heard or saw while on Japan disaster watch prompted me to check the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center. There was news at that point, but to my eye it was non-alarming: At 10:59 p.m. PST, the center had issued a tsunami watch that covered the entire Pacific coast of North America from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Alaska Peninsula—that big arm of land extending southwest from the south Alaskan coast. It meant a tsunami could hit the coast, not that it would.

That got my attention. So I called the center, in Palmer, Alaska, and talked to one of the forecasters there. Here’s the news flash I got and blogged, typos and all:

“Michael Burgy of the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, says that the entire Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada,from southeastern Alaska through Southern California, is on a tsunami watch. on a watch right now.

“The duration of the advisory in California is unclear, Burgy says, as the center studies how fast the wave is traveling. He said it’s expected to reach the first of tsunami monitoring shore station, in the outer Aleutian Islands, at about 1:30 a.m. PST.

I posted that, along with links to the tsunami center’s watch announcement, at 12:36 a.m. I may have noticed at this point that it was taking awhile to get back into our blogging application (WordPress) and the blog itself, but I didn’t think much of it—it would happen occasionally when we had a spike in traffic.

Just before 1 a.m., the tsunami watchers in Alaska upgraded the watch along the coast to a warning, meaning a wave would hit the coast. By 2 o’clock, the tsunami warning center followed up that alert with a timetable for the initial wave’s arrival at points from the Arctic down to Southern California.

I created a new post: Tsunami Warning for California, Oregon. There wasn’t a lot to it: the warning, the predicted times for the tsunami’s arrival, and some interesting warning language that the biggest waves could be expected two to three hours after the onset. I posted that at 2:26 a.m. From that point on, I had only sporadic success seeing the published posts or getting back to WordPress—the traffic the early morning posts were generating more or less shut down the blog. For hours.

I managed to post a couple other items, then call an end to my impromptu all-nighter at about 4 in the morning. We all know what happened next: that first dramatic TV coverage from Japan didn’t begin to hint at the true extent of the tragedy. In California, the tsunami played a havoc here and there—Crescent City and Santa Cruz come to mind first—and swept away a man from a beach near the mouth of the Klamath River.

Beyond my impressions of that night and recounting those five or six hours, is there some greater point to make?

I wouldn’t claim those posts that first night coverage amounted to even a sliver of importance in the larger context of reporting on the disaster or coming to some understanding of the enormity of the event. Those posts were simply the result of reacting to something that looked big and important. They don’t begin to speak to the huge loss of life, the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, and the devastation and displacement of millions of lives.

Finally, here’s a six-minute clip of the tsunami hitting a Japanese town that has remained vivid in my mind since I first saw it within a few days of the disaster. It’s a picture of physical destruction, but it’s more than that: it’s shows how rapidly one’s entire world can vanish.

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Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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