By Charles Hadlock, NBC News Producer/Reporter
TOKYO – I had just stepped into an elevator in Tokyo and pushed the button for the 11th floor.
Suddenly, I noticed the elevator was shaking. The sound of grinding metal echoed through elevator shaft above me. I glanced through the still open doors of the elevator into the hallway at the crystal chandelier I had just been standing under. It was swaying wildly.
AFP - Getty Images
Elementary school children crouch under their desks at their school in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture on Tuesday as another powerful aftershock hit northern Japan. Click on the photo above to see a slideshow of the devastation in Japan a month after the 9.0 quake.
“Bing!” The elevator doors started to close. At that moment I realized I was about to take an 11-story elevator ride during an earthquake.
My foot jammed the closing door and, as the sounds and vibrations grew louder and stronger, I used my hands and arms to pry the heavy doors open. I’ve never exited an elevator so fast in my life.
The chandelier was still swaying precariously. The whole building was shaking. I ran to an archway, the strongest part of the building I could see. I heard cracking and pounding and a low, rumbling sound like thunder.
Oh, how I wished it were only a West Texas thunderstorm – at least you can predict those. But this was a 6.6-magnitude earthquake. How can anyone know it’s coming?
The elevator Charles Hadlock jumped out of when he felt the quake coming.
In Japan, it turns out, scientists know – if only by a few seconds.
When I finally made it up to the NBC News offices on the 11th floor of our hotel, everyone was on the phone to New York and London alerting the network of the powerful earthquake that had just struck north of Tokyo – this was on Monday, the one month anniversary of the big 9.0 quake.
Another one coming…
The TVs in the room were tuned to NHK, Japan’s public television network. The NHK anchors were wearing helmets and showing the latest earth-shaking videos.
Suddenly, the TV blared three loud tones and a map of Japan appeared on the screen with a big red “X” north of Tokyo. I didn’t have to understand the Japanese language to know this was unusual, maybe ominous.
I turned to my colleague, Yuka Tachibana, who is fluent in Japanese, and asked her what the alert on the TV meant. “It means there’s been another earthquake,” she said calmly. “And we’ll be feeling it shortly.” Another colleague was reading a text message he had just received from the government: an earthquake shockwave was coming.
Less than 10 seconds later, the room began to rock and rumble, though not as violently as during the one a few minutes earlier. The numbers on the screen indicated this quake was a mere magnitude 5.2.
How is this early warning system possible (and why don’t we have one in the U.S.)?
Japan has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past 15 years building an earthquake early-warning system.
It centers on a network of seismometers across the country. When a seismometer detects the initial shockwave of an earthquake, computers quickly calculate how powerful the second wave will be and, if it meets a certain threshold, an alarm is sounded. Televisions, radios and cell phones all get the same message within seconds.
The early warning system still can’t predict earthquakes, but it can warn residents that a shockwave is on the way, providing crucial seconds for people to protect themselves before strong tremors arrive.
During the record magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11, the strongest ever recorded in Japan, Tokyo received about a one-minute warning that trouble was on the way; enough time to stop trains, close flood gates and help cities and industries minimize damage.
A YouTube recording shows how the warning was displayed during a live broadcast of Japan’s parliament. The shaking begins about 40 seconds after the warning appears on screen.
The system is not perfect. The closer to the earthquake epicenter, the less warning time is possible and sometimes the alerts arrive too late or they are simply false alarms.
But the March 11 earthquake warning came just in time for Hitoshi Yamada, 76, of Fukushima. He saw the warning on TV and quickly found his 5-year-old grandson, Natsumi. The two held hands as the massive quake violently shook their small home for three minutes and ten seconds. All they could do, he said, was to hang on to each other. They survived the quake and are now living in a shelter in Tokyo.
By all accounts, the warning system is a good head start, giving millions of people in Japan time to react; time for loved ones to find each other; time for news anchors to put on their hard hats and maybe warn others not to step into elevators.
Charles Hadlock is an NBC producer/reporter currently on assignment in Japan.