The Triple Disaster Part 1: Where were you at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011?

This is part one in a series about the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake disaster in Japan.

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It’s been nearly three years since I experienced the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  The media and world has long since moved on to other disasters and crises, and my memories of the event are starting to fade.  This is the first in a short series of blogs about our experiences during the aftermath of the earthquake, in particular the role I played in helping a multinational company respond to the disaster.

But before I get into the details of the disaster, this first post will be about how we came to be in Tokyo at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011.

I was asked to spend 18 months in Tokyo for my employer, GE Capital Corporation, the largest global non-bank financial institution.  I had been working for GE since 2003, when I started as a graduate student intern at their corporate office, and then eventually moved to their Capital division.  My work involved identifying and managing environmental, social, and governance risks associated with financial transactions, mostly very large corporate loans, real estate investments, leases, equity investments, and joint ventures with other financial institutions.  I spent a few years working on industrial real estate investments in Mexico before I was asked to oversee all the environmental risk programs for the company’s operations in Asia.  My three children and I moved to Tokyo in March 2008, and we loved living there.

GE practically invented the models for multinational corporations, outsourcing, and global supply chains.  Their financing activities in Asia reflected the larger GE company, and I was building a team to look at a wide range of risks from all kinds of manufacturing, resource extraction, medical, and energy activities.  The global financial crisis hit not too long after I arrived in Asia, and with the freezing of global credit, my team building efforts took a back seat to managing day-to-day “workouts” of distressed loans and investments.  I traveled extensively through Asia visiting clients and ensuring we were not investing in companies that were breaking environmental laws, polluting, or harming their employees and communities.  My assignment in Asia was extended several times.

Although I was part of the risk management team of a financial operation, in my spare time I often helped with other environmental, health, and safety issues within our company.  I led the Japan EHS Council, a group of employees in my field working for GE.  I started to look at the facilities our own employees worked in, helping our real estate office to start assessing our own risks for things like asbestos exposure and earthquake damage.  I encouraged our business group to implement regional programs for environmental, health, safety, and crisis management.

Before March 11, 2011, there were floods in Queensland and a series of earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand that our business had to respond to, and the local security and crisis management team did a fantastic job of supporting our employees and our business activities in the area.  Unfortunately, our Japanese business didn’t have such a team in place.  Just the week before March 11th, I attended a meeting with our regional headquarters staff in Tokyo to talk about how to better prepare and manage during a crisis.  During part of that meeting, we talked about the importance of planning for our own families first so that we could be effective in assisting the company during a crisis.  We identified a number of things we needed to accomplish to better prepare our regional headquarters and Japanese business for a natural disaster.

That weekend, I sat down with my three kids, aged 12, 14, and 16, and talked about dealing with life’s unexpected complications.  We updated our emergency wallet cards and talked about how we would link up if we were separated during an earthquake.  Our local government in Tokyo had provided a number of resources about earthquakes, and we pulled out the Japanese maps and identified our nearest evacuation points and shelters.

A few weeks earlier, I had been on a business trip when the building’s fire alarm had gone off, and my 16-year old daughter had very competently gathered her siblings, our dog, and our folder of important documents and taken them down the stairs to wait outside the building until the fire alarm was cleared.  We had decided that they were old enough to be on their own during the evenings when I traveled away from Tokyo, with our housekeeper coming during the days to check on them.

On Monday, March 7th, I headed out to Beijing to spend the week assisting with a training class, auditing a manufacturing company, and attending our China EHS Council meeting.  On Tuesday, March 8th, I saw on my Blackberry there had been a large earthquake in the Tohoku area of Japan, more than 7 on the Richter scale.  I checked in with the environmental staff of our manufacturing and service facilities, and everyone was fine.  Japan’s very strict building codes meant there was very little damage to structures from that earthquake.  It was only later in the afternoon that I thought to check on my kids, since they were far from the earthquake’s epicenter, more than 150 miles, and in school.

On Friday afternoon on March 11th, I found myself at a massive Chinese factory outside Beijing, where large construction equipment was manufactured.  I was with a colleague from Hong Kong, attending a financing meeting with the company’s Chief Financial Officer with an opportunity to tour the factory afterwards.  I don’t speak Chinese, so we quietly compared notes and my colleague translated and posed my questions to the company.  Our visit coincided with a huge product launch by the company, and there were purchasing agents from all over China attending the event, which was presented like a glitzy awards show, complete with host and hostess in shiny eveningwear.  During the initial meeting with the CFO,  I started to feel an almost constant buzz from my silenced Blackberry, and I finally pulled the device out and looked at my email feed.  News was coming in that there had been a huge earthquake in Japan and there was a tsunami warning going out.  The earthquake was reported as 7.9, then 8.0, then higher and higher.  I sat in a kind of stunned silence through the event, looking at my work and personal smartphones as news started to come in and an inundation of emails arrived from family, friends, and colleagues outside Japan, asking for information about the earthquake.  In the midst of all this I received a short email from my oldest daughter - she and her sister were fine, they were sitting on the field outside their school waiting for instructions and being shaken by large aftershocks.  Their brother, my youngest child, attended a different school and didn’t have a smartphone.  For the next 24 hours, the only way I was able to communicate with my kids was through email, as voice service throughout Northern Japan was disrupted.  I also communicated with our family emergency contact, a lawyer friend whose kids attended school with my daughters.  It took nearly six hours for the girls to get home from school once a decision had been made to bus the kids home -- all the expressways and trains in Tokyo had been shut down as a safety precaution, and the local roads became jammed as families tried to drive into Tokyo to pick up loved ones.  I got in touch with my youngest’s school by email, and he eventually rode his bike home to check on our dog and see if there was significant damage to our apartment building.  Many, many people in Tokyo did not get home that night or walked great distances over unfamiliar ground to reach their homes.  As an American, it’s hard to imagine the enormous number of people who move through Tokyo on a daily basis.  With over 37 million people, the metropolitan area of Tokyo is the largest city on earth, squeezing a population equivalent to the entire state of California into an area the size of Los Angeles.

I was already scheduled to fly home on Saturday morning and was on one of the first flights that came into Narita airport, full of anxious Japanese residents wanting to get home as well and a group of international journalists arriving to report on the event.  Narita Airport had transformed into a debris filled building, and by the time I arrived there were reportedly 10,000 people squeezed into the airport trying to leave Japan.  As I waited for one of the few local trains that were running, the first explosion occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant.  Tokyo had transformed in two minutes of shaking:  my usual 1-hour bullet train ride in a country with great pride in its clean and efficient existence turned into a stumbling journey that took nearly as long as the flight from Beijing.  It was just the beginning of a month when my life went topsy turvy and a year of managing the aftermath of the earthquake.