When I was younger, I had pen pals in countries throughout the world. I wrote to a Japanese girl whose handwriting was so neat you would think a typewriter or computer had produced it. In her letters, she tried to teach me some of her language, to no avail. She was a talented artist, too. I remember her correspondence often coming accompanied with colorful little drawings of ordinary objects in everyday life. I looked forward to those images.
Today, unfortunately, it’s a different set of images I have in my mind’s eye when I think about the devastation in Japan from last week’s earthquake, one the U.S. Geological Survey now describes as an almost unimaginable 9.0 on the Richter scale, and the tsunami that hit. I wish I could say this friend and I had kept in touch, but we didn’t. I did not save her letters, and I don’t remember her name. Her identity is lost to me, a victim of the passage of time. Was she still living in Japan? Is she alright? I’ll never know the answers to these questions.
It’s a scene of horror unfolding in Japan right now. Family members checking rosters of survivors, hoping their missing relative’s name is on that list. Some cases result in relieved reunions, while others lead to grief-stricken realizations. Unsettling reports of older, physically weaker persons being shoved aside in the chaos as those younger and stronger sought safety from rising waters. Buildings destroyed. Homes evacuated for fear of radiation in the air from severely compromised nuclear reactors. Residents lacking heat, electricity and water. It appears that it will be a long recovery ahead for that nation, despite its technological advancement.
We each have our anxieties, our own worst fears and private nightmares, as we contemplate what a natural disaster of this magnitude might look like in our own areas. To me, the potential radiation contamination from the nuclear facilities is the monster hiding under the bed, only this is no children’s book. I live in a city with two nuclear power plants within approximately 20 miles. Plans are underway for more plants in my state in the years ahead. I learned yesterday that the state is deemed to be at “moderate” risk of earthquakes.
I don’t know what the answer is – traditional coal-burning power plants release greenhouses gases, and that’s a threat in the long-run, too. I hope the people charged with responsibility for making these decisions, and those overseeing the decision-makers, will proceed with caution and learn lessons from what is happening now in Japan. We should strive to use less energy, yes, but that is only a partial and incomplete solution to the problem. I’ve spoken informally with a few others in my community enough lately to understand that others share some of these worries.
We cannot calm each other’s fears until we quell our own, though, and that will only come with more knowledge and information. For Japan, I believe the nuclear disasters they are facing, with meltdowns or partial meltdowns underway at multiple locations, are a special kind of nightmare in a country that experienced the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II and the deaths that occurred immediately from the blasts or from radiation poisoning in their aftermath. They must be going through their own brand of trauma now, a kind of historical, generational grief.
Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina