The writer is the son of AFRO freelance photographer J.D. Howard. He lives in Tokyo with his family and is an employee of Dell computers. He sent this letter to family and friends via e-mail on March 18, then a week after the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan.
Dear family and friends,
… I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the situation over here, and thought this would be the best way to summarize where things are as of now…
First of all, my wife and I would like to thank each and every one of you for your kind words of concern, and for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers over the past week. Last Friday’s earthquake was terrifying for us living here in Tokyo, but the fear we experienced that afternoon, and the inconveniences we still experience to this day are trivial compared to what the people of northeastern Honshu have gone though and are still going through.
I haven’t counted how many people have reached out to Motoko and I inquiring as to our safety and the safety of our family. It’s probably been several dozen people around the world by now. And yet, as this crisis continues into a new phase and events around the nuclear power plant in Fukushima continue to unfold, I understand that many of you, now for very different reasons, are still asking the same question: “Are you okay?”
To answer that question, I wish I could simply say that everything’s fine and that the situation at the power plant is under control, with radioactive contamination confined to the immediate vicinity. But as we also know, events are still extremely fluid and the reality is that things could still go either way. Having said that, I remain cautiously optimistic that the technicians up there will resolve the crisis—although it will take time. Meanwhile, we continue to gather as much information as we can from a variety of sources to understand the situation there and what it means for us here, re-evaluating our understanding of the situation as the facts change.
Things are still changing by the hour, so I won’t try and give you a detailed report here on the state of efforts to get the reactors under control. What I write now will be old by the time you read it, and I’m assuming you already know a lot of what has happened so far. As I’m writing this, electricians are trying to get electric power restored to they can get cooling and other equipment running once again. Attempts have been made to get water on the reactor using water drops by air and by water cannons. I read an article this morning that said experts from the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) say that the situation has not deteriorated in the past 24 hours, but it’s still premature to say we’re seeing “a ray of hope.”
I think this is a fair assessment. We are clearly not out of the woods yet. But I also want to stress that the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant is about 150 miles from Tokyo. Radiation levels at the west gate of the plant have been recorded as high as 400 microsieverts per hour (that’s 0.04 rad), but as of this morning it’s been around 270 (27 rad). As early of Tuesday morning they were talking about levels of more than 8,000 microsieverts per hour near one of the reactors. As I mentioned earlier, we haven’t seen things deteriorate in the past day or so, so I think we can take some solace in this.
The Japanese authorities didn’t do a very good job of communicating all this in the first days of the disaster. This is beginning to change, but it is part of the reason for the heightened state of anxiety. In the absence of news, rumors run rampant. And while people on TV kept telling us all was safe outside of the 30 kilometer zone around the facility, for a while it has been difficult to attain information on what radiation levels looked like there or anywhere else.
Fortunately that has been improving. NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp.) now will occasionally show maps that look like weather maps, but instead of temperatures they show radiation levels in different parts of the country, and they are now explaining what the numbers mean. So far, while radiation levels have risen in some areas, levels are still quite low and well below what would pose health risks.
So what does this mean for us living in Tokyo? Official measurements are released twice a day now, and anyone can download them and see hour by hour what the situation looks like for the past 24 hours. I took a look at the figures this morning, and for Tokyo, we were at about 0.05 microsieverts per hour yesterday on average. Under normal conditions Tokyo is anywhere between 0.03 to 0.08. A few days ago the same reading was 0.09. Radioactive levels for Tokyo are fluctuating but are still around what one would consider normal for this part of Japan.
In my part of town (Tama-shi, Western Tokyo), I’m fortunate enough to have a physicist who lives nearby, and he has a website on which he posts radiation levels at his home every 10 minutes. According to Dr. Ichikawa’s site, this part of town is currently at 0.18, about the same level as typical background radiation around here.
To put all these numbers in perspective, exposures of 10 millisieverts or more per hour correspond to a CT scan, so this means things around the plant are still quite bad, but the situation (for now at least) are still quite localized.
So for now, we do not appear to be in harm’s way, but embassies of several countries have asked their nationals to consider leaving. I received an e-mail from the US Embassy yesterday offering to take me and my wife to either Seoul or Taipei so I can arrange for passage to the US. I know of people who have taken the offers or have already left. I have to admit, it’s somewhat disconcerting to get a notice like that, and see people around you taking off for the hills. But I intend to ride this out. I love this place, and have spent half of my life – and nearly all of my adult life – living here. It’s hard to think of turning your back on a place and its people when they are facing their darkest hours in memory.
Having said that, we will continue to remain vigilant and follow developments. We will keep our heads up and our spirits upbeat. And we will reach out to our friends and neighbors here in Japan, and to our extended family and friends elsewhere to get to the other side of this terrible tragedy. I think Japan has some tough days ahead of it, but I’ve never seen a people face adversity with such civility and concern for one another, and the blackouts, train stoppages and shortages for items like bread and gasoline are nothing compared to what the people up north are facing now. Snow is falling, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced, and people in the vicinity of the power plant are quite literally forced to deal with two crises at once.
… For now, please think about what you can do from there to help the people in the north. I am sure aid agencies are starting to organize now so please find out what you can and try and help. Rebuilding that area is going to be a monumental task and I think this nation will rise to the challenge, but it will require a lot of support.
As always, thanks to all of you for keeping us in your thoughts, and God Bless!