(NIIGATA, JAPAN) MARCH 12, 2011 – In the airport lobby I strike up a friendship with the only other Caucasians on the flight from Shanghai. They are Al Jazeera TV journalists who, like me, have grabbed the first transportation they could. But their journey had begun in Bangkok. Together, by taxi, we navigate Niigata, which is undamaged. They are looking for information, pictures, and a car. By nightfall, they have hired two limousines to take them to the disaster areas. I remain behind since my cell phone will not work in Japan so it would be worthless for me to be somewhere without the ability to report what I see. Aside from the hotel’s WifI I have no means of connecting with the Internet. I appraise New York of my status.
In Niigata, on the Western side of the Japan’s biggest island 6 hours on a good day across to Sendai, where most of the damage is. Not a brick is out of place here. The mountains are visible. Can’t rent a phone. They don’t rent them here. No cars to rent either. Hooked up with a couple of other foreign New Zealanders who are TV journalists from Aljazeera English who were on the same flight as me. One fellow, details below, has a phone that works but he has not given me permission to use it. I forward it to you for an emergency.
Writing you now from Hotel Niigata, where the Internet is fine. SKYPE works. Haven’t checked in.
The Aljazeera English guys have two cars booked to leave at 7:30pm, 8:00pm local time (5:30am, 6am your time) but they are holding off because they just heard about the reactor explosion in Fukushima, south of Sendai by some 100 miles or so. Radiation has reportedly increased 20-fold but winds are blowing from the West to the East. The cars cost $600 a piece for 10 hours. But it is said the highways between here and Sendai and not good (CNN reports the only road in is from the South and that it is jammed up) and possibly closed.
There is also the high possibility that once I get to Sendai there will be no Internet and no cell phone (I don’t have one anyway) though there are reports being filed by SKYPE, I am told. However, that’s where the action is.
The Al Jazeera guys have also been able to possibly arrange an early morning (7am local time Sunday, your 5pm Saturday) helicopter transport to Sendai where they would want to stay. That would cost upwards of $3,000, which they are willing to split with me/us.
In other news, friend and freelance videographer James Reynolds who has shot for CNN, is considering flying here to Niigata via Nagoya, arriving Sunday night 5:30pm. If he did, he would try to pick up phones for us both in Nagoya. Don’t know what the helicopter situation would be at that point, but I know where the rental place is.
Concerned about ability to do two-ways. Not worried about reactor explosion since the winds are blowing the right now…for now.
THE NUMBERS – ASTOUNDING
9-THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED UNACCOUNTED FOR IN THE NORTHEASTERN CITY OF MINA-MISAN-RIKU, MIYAGI PROVINCE
THAT’S ACCORDING TO STATE MEDIA QUOTING LOCAL OFFICIALS
MEANWHILE. TO THE IMMEDIATE SOUTH, THE STATE DEPARTMENT NOW ECHOING THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT TELLING ALL U.S CITIZENS WITHIN 12 MILES OF THE FUKISHIMA DAI-ICHI NUCLEAR POWER PLANT TO EVACUATE
THIS AS A SIX-POINT-O AFTERSHOCK ROCKED THAT AREA
AND AN EXPLOSION RIPPED THE ROOF OFF THE BUILDING HOUSING A NUCLEAR REACTOR – BUT LEFT IN TACT THE METAL THAT SURROUNDS THE REACTOR ITSELF
THE U-N’S ATOMIC WATCHDOG PLANNING TO GIVE RESIDENTS IODINE TO STEM ANY POTENTIAL RADIATION SICKNESS
Everything all book.
Flight tomorrow – CX536 departs HKG 1030 arrives Nagoya 1500. Will pick up comms gears and nightstop in Nagoya. Booked on first flight to Niigata on Monday 14th arrives 0905 flight no. NH1811.
I’ll be ready to hit the ground running once I arrive.
Things you might want to think about preparing tomorrow if you have any spare time. Once we leave Niigata we have to assume we’ll be roughing it and sleeping in car for 3 days. Hopefully we’ll find hotel but we can’t assume anything. We’ll need food and water and gas for 3 days. Convenience stores in Japan have good ready meals and drinks etc.
I have power unit so we can charge batteries from inside the car using cigarette lighter.
My thoughts are strongest visuals could be in small towns north of Sendai were the tsunami was funneled up the bays and totally destroyed them, one of the town reported 400 bodies lying around. I have spare face masks, even though it’s cold it could start getting smelly after a few days.
This is going to be grim as hell, certainly worst thing I’ll have covered, but really want to nail this story.
Honoured to be able to cover it with you!
See you soon!
(TSUROUKA, JAPAN) MARCH 13, 2011 – After stocking up on provisions in Niigata CNN/Weather Channel videographer, friend and fellow Fudan University colleague James Reynolds and I arrive in this city on the unaffected West Coast of Japan. Earlier in the day I picked up him up at the airport. He has been able to rent a cell phone and Internet widgit that works in Japan. After we go shopping for provisions we drive north. It is the first day car rentals are permitted after the earthquake, but no gas is being sold. We find a hotel and plan to visit effected areas.
(ISHINOMAKI, JAPAN) MARCH 15, 2011 – This is the woman (and, in the beige cage, their dog) featured in the radio story, above. I regret my Japanese wasn’t good enough at the time to report that her reply to me, when I asked, “How are you?” wasn’t only “Not good” but also “We’ve lost everything.” As a foreign correspondent and spot news reporter covering a disaster you often can only do the best you can do at the time and learn with the years. Thanks to James Reynolds – my dear friend, former Fudan University classmate, and, on this trip, freelance videographer selling to CNN – logistics for covering the disaster were made easier, if not possible, by his extensive experience as one of Asia’s few storm chasers. For more on his work see http://www.earthuncut.tv/.
This is the main street of the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Province as we came upon it on Tuesday, the 16th. No cops, no barricades as in Chistchurch, New Zealand after their earthquake which had taken place the month before. Just disaster.
One of my regrets on this assignment was my failure to mention the happiness of these elderly residents of Ishinomaki four days after the tsunami destroyed their city. The woman in red dried clothes over the fire barrel. On the street young people were in shock and appeared zombie-like. They wore what is called the “ten-thousand mile stare” that victims often sustain. But the “ancients” as my sister-in-law, Misako, who is from southern Japan calls them, survived by leaning on one another. “Watch the ancients,” Misako once advised me at a trying time in our lives. So true.
I was assigned, and, became, by virtue of my ability to get closer than any one else, the role of lead reporter for Fox News Radio, the largest radio network in the United States with over 1,000 affiliates and 40 million estimated listeners. I arrived March 12, 2011, in Niigata, on the Japan’s west coast, the day after the disaster. Two days later, James Reynolds and I drove to Tsuroka. The next day we made our way to Ishinomaki. My last live report, at 9pm, exactly one week after the tsunami, was bumped to the number two spot when a no-fly zone was declared in Libya. I returned to Shanghai the next day. Above, the fellow who you hear in one report saying “I just help.”
Here (bottom right) James and I are pictured after a successful snowball fight outside our hotel as we prepared to leave the Japanese West Coast city of Tsuroka on March 16, 2011. There was no Internet and less reliable supplies of electricity, housing and gas three hours East in the disaster area, thus making Tsuoroka the place where Fox wanted me, since getting the deadline was, to them, more important than me even being at the site and viewing the destruction. Being so close, and, since James’ necessity was to have pictures, we drove, on the 14th, three hours across northern Honshu island. The trip back, in a raging snow storm took twice as long. As James drove I filed reports and engaged in “two-ways” — live, unscripted three-to-seven minute conversations with anchors and news hosts at Fox affiliates. Each of these conversations, I have been told, nets the network the equivalent of $500 in advertising time and space credits which the affiliate then trades to the network in enhance. Over the course of the 10 days I was in Japan I did 50 of these. My daily salary was $300. In between these freewheeling conversations I wrote and voiced live reports on the hour. My reporting was conducted over a smart phone as a tractor-trailer bore down upon our compact. James, a UK native used to driving on the wrong side of the road, but never having driven in snow before, sweated bullets. The tractor trailer, impatient with the small two-lane highway and the James’ cautious driving because of blinding snow, tailgated us while flashing his high beams in an attempt to bully us off the road. This, and not the over-hyped fear of nonexistent radioactivity, was the most dangerous part of our experience.
At the Niigata airport officials Japanese officials tried to maintain order while scared Chinese eager to get out contrasted that appearance of calm with chaos. Chinese migrant workers filled out paperwork to ensure they would not lose their visa right to return to their jobs in Japan when the crisis was over. (top right) Some Chinese, born to parents who were themselves illegally in Japan, had never seen China. Empty shelves in a Japanese supermarket.
Below, the year-in-review piece summing up the entire event in one minute, thirty-two seconds.
Following the earthquake, which took place on a Friday, the government had restricted, for the weekend, the availability of car rentals. For me, as a radio reporter, stuck in Niigata, this was a minor inconvenience: I only needed the dateline, at that point. Listeners in America, who, by definition are geographically-illiterate, didn’t care that I was a two-day drive away from the impacted areas. Primacy-recency – the last thing I said in every report was the words “Japan,” and, as far as they were concerned — if they could even find that on a map — it was one big Godzilla and sushi factory: one city was as good as another. My editors in New York felt the same way and so they discouraged me from being outside Internet range if I did go venturing to the site since the most important thing, as I said above, was being available for two-ways and live reports. The only reason they consented to me driving to Ishinomaki to see the damage for myself was because I promised I would be back on the air by 5am their time that evening, Tuesday. A gamble I was somewhat unsure of, and, eventually, almost didn’t make.
I left Japan on Saturday, March 19 when it was clear the story and Fox News Radio affiliates no longer demanded minute-to-minute coverage. I chose to evacuate on a plane chartered to take Chinese workers home. This paper (above, bottom left), paid for in cash, which is the only payment that would be accepted, was my ticket. On the flight back to Shanghai flight attendants poured over the newspapers I shared with them showing a map of the affected areas. One flight attendant told me she was frightened by the possibility of radioactivity. After a full week of working to calm some 40 million listeners (and encouraging the newsroom to tone down its hysteria) I explained to her that the amount of radioactive exposure she endured monthly as a flight attendant surpassed any exposure she would experience from her trip to Niigata, Japan. I saw my role, in this disaster, as a teacher and a public servant exercising a public trust.
Often broadcasters must be both entertainers and journalists. Fall short of that line and you’re boring. Go over it and you compromise your integrity. James’ connections to information from the Japanese military reinforced the surety of what I was saying on air. What eventually made this story redundant was not the diminished severity of the suffering, but the announcement, at my time, 9pm, Friday, March 18, but that a no-fly zone had been announced for Libya. It was at that instant that the Japan Tsunami story was no longer the most important thing in the world.