The Man Who Sailed His House

In this month’s GQ, Michael Paterniti writes a remarkable story of a Japanese man named Hiromitsu who survived the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Not only is the story incredible, but so is the narration (you here are this man, experiencing the catastrophe in the present):

At two forty-six, something rumbles from deep in the earth, a sickening sort of grinding, and then everything lurches wildly, whips back, lurches more wildly still. The cut boards stacked along the wall clatter down, and your first move is to flee the shed, to dive twenty feet free onto open ground and clutch it, as if riding the back of a whale. Time elongates. Three minutes becomes a lifetime.

When the jolting ends, stupefaction is followed by dismay—and then a bleary accounting. Already phones are useless. The boss, Mr. Mori, urges you to rush home to check on your wife and parents, but fearing a tsunami, fearing a drive down into the lowlands by the sea, and trusting the strength of your concrete house to protect your wife and parents, you at first refuse. There are ancient stone markers on this coast, etched warnings from the ancestors, aggrieved survivors of past tsunamis—1896, 1933—beseeching those who live by the water to build on the inland side of their hubris or suffer the consequences.

A description of the approaching tsunami:

You don’t look out to sea, not once; you stand staring at the mountain, Kunimi, in the distance. And now you can hear her downstairs, inside again, and now comes the creak of the bathroom door. Comes the sound of running water. Comes this vision of the mountain, placid, immovable—and then, to your right, to the north, within twenty feet, drifts the whole house of your neighbor. The house is moving past as if borne by ghosts. When you turn left, to the south and the garden, everything is as it’s always been, dry and in place. When you turn back the other way, you can see only this coursing field of ocean.

Just an incredible descriptive paragraph here:

This force is greater than the force of memory, or regret, or fear. It’s the force of an impersonal death, delivered by thousands of pounds of freezing water that slam you into a dark underworld, the one in which you now find yourself hooded, beaten, pinned deeper. The sensation is one of having been lowered into a spinning, womblike grave. If you could see anything in the grip of this monster, fifteen feet down, you’d see your neighbors tumbling by, as if part of the same circus. You’d see huge pieces of house—chimneys and doors, stairs and walls—crashing into each other, fusing, becoming part of one solid, deadly wave. You’d see shards of glass and splintered swords of wood. Or a car moving like a submarine. You’d see your thirty pigeons revolving in their cage. Or your wife within an arm’s reach, then vacuumed away like a small fish. You frantically flail. Is this up or down?

The experience of being out at sea, and deciding: should I drink? Should I eat? Can I?

At sunset, sky in scratches of purple light, a gnawing in your gut tells you it’s dinner, so you crack open the first can, drink, then, head tilted back, try to lick out the last drop. The roof is perhaps twelve feet by six, of corrugated metal nailed to wood beams, your raft at sea. Last night, you and Yuko slept beneath it, and now you perch atop it on the sea, above the goblin sharks and whatever else lurks below. 

Hiromitsu forces himself from going to sleep, and soon experiences hallucinations. Frightening:

You’re convinced you see a body coming near, and start screaming—Help me! But then it’s a tree trunk. In another you see a huge wave hurtling toward the roof and imagine turning into a tree to save yourself. But just as you think to stand and hang your arms like branches, you stop yourself for fear the roof will tip.

And what of the rescue?

Out of the oblivion, a clear voice responds, “We’re here,” and the boat drifts alongside your roof-home, and the voice asks, “Which side is safest?” And you say, “The side toward land, please,” as you strip the plastic container full of notes from your body and place it on the altar of your futon. Then one of the bundled figures steps out of the lifeboat onto the tippy roof and comes toward you with arms outstretched. The figure leads you across, five paces, and only when you lean forward into their boat and splay your body over its hard gunwale, like a glorious falling tree, do you know it’s real…

This is a story of survival, love, and loss. Hiromitsu lost his wife to the tsunami, but he carries her memory:

This is how you speak to her, through the scraps in the bag, but also aloud sometimes. Before eating, you might murmur, “Thank you,” as if she’s prepared the food on your plate. You might do the same on a beautiful day, as if she’s created it. And before bed each night, you tell her you love her. You say this to her presence or spirit, but you forgo mementos, little altars, or pictures on the wall. You can’t bear the idea of seeing her again, as you knew her in all those endless days before the wave.

Earthquake in Japan: Readings, Photos, Videos, Resources

You’ve probably heard by now that a massive 8.9 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan on March 11, 2011. I’ve been digesting a lot of news regarding this event, and wanted to highlight the best resources I’ve found so far. I’ll update this post throughout the week. If you have any suggestions to add, feel free to comment below.


I didn’t find out about the quake until about twelve hours after it happened. And my first resource to check, as I usually do when major world events occur, was Wikipedia. The article on the 2011 Sendai Earthquake and Tsunami is constantly being revised by the devout Wikipedia editors, and as of this writing, there have been more than 2,300 revisions. The article is quite comprehensive, and even has links to other full-grown articles on the Fukushima nuclear reactor accidents.


Here are the best reads on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami:

1) “Japan’s Strict Building Codes Saved Lives” [New York Times] – Make no mistake about it: had an earthquake of this magnitude happened anywhere else in the world, the death toll would be in the tens of thousands. While many in the blogosphere deemed this piece polemic, it serves as a crucial reminder:

After the Kobe earthquake [also known as the Great Hanshin Earthquake] in 1995, which killed about 6,000 people and injured 26,000, Japan also put enormous resources into new research on protecting structures, as well as retrofitting the country’s older and more vulnerable structures. Japan has spent billions of dollars developing the most advanced technology against earthquakes and tsunamis.

2) “Nuclear Energy 101” [Boing Boing] – very illuminating post from Maggie Koerth-Baker explaining the basics of nuclear energy, and what can go wrong. Because you don’t want to be the guy who explains that “the extent of my knowledge on nuclear power plants is pretty much limited to what I’ve seen on The Simpsons”. (link via @stevesilberman, @edyong209)

3) “Nuclear Experts Explain Worst-Case Scenario at Fukushima Power Plant” [Scientific American] – a good, if somewhat depressing, read:

The type of accident that is occurring in Japan is known as a station blackout. It means loss of offsite AC power—power lines are down—and then a subsequent failure of emergency power on site—the diesel generators. It is considered to be extremely unlikely, but the station blackout has been one of the great concerns for decades.

4) “Japan Earthquake Factbox” [Vancouver Sun] – a great quick-hits list of trivia of the effects of this earthquake. A few of my favorites:

  • There were more than 100 aftershocks (rated 5.0+ in magnitude) since the initial quake. You can verify on the USGS site (so many occurrences of “NEAR THE EAST COAST OF HONSHU, JAPAN”)
  • The Earth’s axis has reportedly shifted ten inches as a result of the quake, and Japan’s coast is said to have permanently shifted 2.4 METERS.
  • The quake was 900 times stronger than the quake that hammered San Francisco in 1989.

5) “The Internet Kept Me Company” [New York Times] – a beautiful personal post from Sandra Barron, who lives in Japan. She reflects how internet (but especially Twitter, where she goes by @sandrajapandra) has kept her company:

Then I turned to Twitter. When there’s a quake, everyone who uses Twitter tends to tweet about it. (The United States Geological Survey has even announced that it will start monitoring these reports as part of its surveillance.) This time I waited until the first round of shaking had died down. Then I wrote: “That rearranged my kitchen.” It had. Drawers were open. Bottles had hit the floor.

6) “Fukushima Nuclear Accident” [Brave New Climate] – hands down, the BEST explanation of the disaster unfolding in Fukushima. If there is one source you read to learn (from the very beginning, in layman’s terms) about the Fukushima nuclear reactors and what has gone wrong so far, make it this. The post was published March 12, but there are continuous updates on the blog (March 14 update is here; March 15 update is here). A must-read source.


1) The In Focus blog at The Atlantic has two incredible galleries.

2) ABC News (AU) has the best use of Google images I’ve seen relating to this quake. The before/after images are astounding. If there is one link you click through in this post, make it this one.

3) New York Times has a similar gallery, but it’s a bit more awkward to use that slider.


AP has perhaps the most viewed video over the last few days:

Helicopter footage of giant tsunami waves approaching the Japanese coast:

CCTV footage from Sendai Airport showing the incoming tsunami:

Astounding footage showing the size of the tsunami waves as they devour a ship:

Building swaying during the earthquake:

And finally, amazing amateur video showing the earthquake alert system in Japan:

This MSNBC post explains (link via @pourmecoffee):

Japan has spent well more than $1 billion on earthquake prediction systems, including a network of more than 1,000 GPS-based sensors scattered around the country — and the payoff came today when Tokyo’s residents were given up to a minute’s warning that a Big One was on the way.

The early warning system isn’t that useful for those who are close to the epicenter, because the S-waves come quickly behind the P-waves. But because Tokyo is about 230 miles away, that city’s residents could have taken action as much as 80 seconds before the serious shaking began. As noted in this Technology Review report, that amount of time can give people a chance to stop a train, lower a crane, pull a car over to the side of the road, stop performing surgery in a hospital or get off an elevator in an office building.

Other Resources

1) The Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis has launched an excellent web portal for the earthquake. Don’t miss the webmaps page and for the data-loving nerds, this page.

2) Great infographic in the New York Times showing how the shifting plates off the coast of Japan caused the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Also, don’t miss this interactive map showing the damage across Japan (link via @lexinyt, @palafo)

3) Jodi Ettenberg has an excellent Twitter list of journalists and others reporting from Japan.

4) There is superb live coverage of the Japan earthquake on Al Jazeera and continuous updates on the New York Times lede blog (via Open Culture).

5) Google has a dedicated resource page relating to the earthquake, including a people finder.

6) Ushahidi (in Japanese). Includes a live crisis map of Japan.

How to Help

Here are some ways to help victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan:

  • American Red Cross — U.S. mobile phone users can text REDCROSS to 90999 to add $10 automatically to your phone bill. Or visit or call 1-800-RED-CROSS.
  • International Medical Corps — Sending relief teams and supplies to the area. Call 1-800-481-4462, or visit .
  • Save the Children — The relief effort providing food, medical care and education to children is accepting donations through mobile phones by texting JAPAN to 20222 to donate $10. People can also call 1-800-728-3843 during business hours or visit to donate online.
  • Global Giving — The non-profit which works through grassroots efforts says Americans can text JAPAN to 50555 to give $10 through their phone bill. Or visit .
  • Interaction — The group is the largest alliance of U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations and lists many ways to help on its site, .
  • Network for Good — The aggregator of charities has a list of programs and ways to donate to relief efforts. Visit
  • Doctors without Borders — this is the organization I personally support (I supported them last year after the Haiti earthquake). Visit the site and donate directly at .


As I mentioned at the top, if you have found excellent resources relating to this earthquake, feel free to comment below. I will update this post several times.