Postcard 40: Surviving Typhoon Hagibis in Japan

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One of my greatest fears when traveling to Asia anytime from summer through fall is being there during typhoon season. In 2018, I was in Seoul when Typhoon Kong-Rey slammed Busan, the southern part of South Korea. The day it hit, what was supposed to be a pleasant outdoor walk around a palace quickly turned into a mad dash through the rain, making for an uncomfortable and inconvenient experience. And I thought that was enough to ruin a good trip. Boy, was I wrong.

While in Okinawa, a hotel manager had informed my mom and I that a massive typhoon was approaching the islands in a few days. Luckily, we would be in Tokyo by the time it was projected to hit, putting us out of danger, I thought. But a few days later, my boyfriend in Hawaii sent me a text, warning me about an approaching typhoon heading toward Tokyo — and it was expected to make landfall the exact same time I would be there. Begrudgingly, I checked multiple news sites and a weather radar, and sure enough, he was right: Typhoon Hagibis was heading our way, whether I liked it or not. And it was heading our way with a vengeance.

Frankly, knowing we would soon be in the midst of a storm put a damper on the next few days. The thought lingered in the back of my mind — even being at the happiest place on Earth wasn’t enough to wipe away my anxiety.

Even though living in Hawaii, I was used to tropical storms and hurricanes affecting us in the summer months, I’d never truly experienced a Category 3 or 4-equivalent typhoon making landfall. The scariest part was not knowing how much damage this storm would cause, and not knowing how it would affect us while in a foreign country.

As luck would have it, Typhoon Hagibis was expected to make landfall right where we were staying: in the Chiba prefecture.

It was expected to make landfall on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, the day half of our group would head back to Hawaii and the other half (myself included) would head to the Shinagawa district of Tokyo. Unfortunately, all travel — both air and land — was halted that day, leaving all of us with no other option but to stay put in our hotel in Chiba. The group that was supposed to leave for Honolulu scrambled to figure out other travel options.

Thankfully, I was part of the group leaving on Monday, so we were fine. But I felt awful for the rest of the group that had to dish out extra money to reschedule their flights.

I awoke in my hotel the morning of Oct. 12 — the day it was expected to make landfall — to a flurry of phone calls and texts from my TV news colleagues in Hawaii. Although it was only 7 a.m. in Japan, it was around noon back home, and as much as I wanted to be fully on vacation mode, when the news calls, you answer.

My assignment editor called to ask what the vibe was like in the Tokyo area. Were people hoarding toilet paper and canned goods from the grocery stores? Were we getting blasted with heavy rains yet? I told her the honest truth. I had been at Disneyland all day yesterday and it was as if everything was business as usual there. I described the ominous skies and light drizzle, but we weren’t getting pummeled yet.

After responding to the rest of my texts from coworkers, my mom and I headed down to meet up with the rest of my family for breakfast. Looking out the large glass windows, I could see that the winds were picking up, but I was surprised that it didn’t look like what I’d always envisioned of a massive typhoon … yet.

Since we couldn’t go anywhere that day, we all tried to make the most of our day. Some of my family members worked on their laptops in the cafe area, some browsed the gift shops (surprisingly, it was like a mini mall in our hotel with lots of Disney merchandise and other Japanese goodies), some of us hung out in our rooms, biding our time.

I noticed crowds of people gathering in the hotel lobby. I was wondering why everyone was just hanging out there, but I later found out that our hotel was built so sturdy that it was actually considered an emergency shelter.

I spent most of the day doing a little bit of everything: I called my boyfriend, updated my Twitter with the latest on the storm (some of my tweets actually ended up going viral), browsed the gift shops, ate lunch, chatted with some of my family, watched the local news to see how other regions were faring, and looked out the window to monitor the increasing effects of the storm.

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Remember how I mentioned my uncle’s breathtaking view of Tokyo Bay? Just days ago, the bay was completely still as the sun cast its rays on the water. Now, it was a completely different story.

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The powerful wind gusts generated typhoon waves, transforming what was once a calm and quiet body of water into fierce and treacherous beast. The howling wind sent a shivers down my spine. I glanced over at the trees bending over, appearing to be on the verge of snapping.

Typhoon Hagibis was ready to attack.

Around this time, I saw news clips of other parts of Japan where there were tornadoes, flooded rivers and even helicopter rescues. I was thankful that my family and I were in a relatively safe place.

We made dinner reservations for 6 p.m. (yes, even the hotel restaurants were still open). By 5:30 p.m., I was getting a little sleepy and shut my eyes for a few minutes when suddenly, I felt the bed shaking. I thought my mom was trying to wake me up to let me know it was time for dinner, but as I opened my eyes, she was still in the same spot as earlier.

“Whoa, what was that?” she asked.

I sat up and the entire room started to sway. I had never been as nervous and terrified as I had been in that moment. It must’ve been the effects of Hagibis. It couldn’t have been an earthquake … right?

I furiously checked Twitter to see if anyone was saying anything, and sure enough, a 5.7 magnitude earthquake had struck … Chiba! Was this how the world was supposed to end?

After all of that excitement, we all went downstairs for a buffet dinner while bonding over our earthquake experience. Then, we went back up to our rooms, where the wind was louder than ever and the walls rattled violently. I looked out my window at the rain blasting and the winds trying with all their might to topple trees over.

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I took a shower and settled into a deep sleep even while the wind continued to howl.

The next morning, we awoke to beautiful blue skies. It was almost like a dream, like nothing had happened. It seemed like Hagibis left virtually nothing in its wake except for a few knocked over plants and some debris. Of course, it was a much different story in other regions of Japan.

In general, I was utterly impressed with the infrastructure in our area. Not once did the power go out, nor did the lights even flicker. And the fact that our hotel was considered an emergency shelter was mind-blowing. In Hawaii, that would never be the case. If a hurricane of that magnitude ever struck, the power grid would be too overwhelmed, ultimately leading to power outages for days on end. Houses and public buildings would likely be destroyed or severely damaged beyond repair.

However, because Japan suffered numerous natural disasters over time — from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 to multiple typhoons — the country was inevitably forced to develop world-class infrastructure. The idea intrigued me so much  that I published a news piece about how Hawaii can learn from Japan and other countries when it comes to developing sound infrastructure.

The experience was unlike any I had ever been through. Although I was bummed that it interfered with our plans in Shinagawa, at least I have a unique story I can tell others for years to come: I survived Typhoon Hagibis.

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