In March 2011 a vast, 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan. Fear of such a catastrophe runs deep among the Japanese, and many mentally rehearse where they might be and how they will react should “the Big One” strike. However, most were unprepared for the terrifying scale of this particular earthquake, let alone the subsequent, epic tsunami that devoured everything in its path and the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant.
“Strong in the Rain”—by journalists David McNeill and Lucy Birmingham—blends history, science and gripping storytelling to bring the immediate aftermath of this triple disaster to life, through the eyes of the men and women who experienced it first-hand.
Following the narratives of six individuals, the book traces the shape of a tragedy and the awe-inspiring heroics it prompted. Among others, we meet David Chumreonlert, a Texan with Thai roots, trapped in his school’s gymnasium with hundreds of students and teachers as it begins to flood. We meet a worker who thought nothing of returning to the Fukushima plant to fight the nuclear disaster, despite effects that he knew might stay with him for the rest of his life.
We read of the mayor of a coastal town who remained devoted to his job and the care of his townsfolk round the clock, without knowing the fate of his own family, his optimism and bravery as inspiring as his problems overwhelming. We learn of the messengers who sacrificed their own lives to warn others of the rapidly approaching tsunami.
In addition to this beautifully-written and moving collection of narratives, McNeill and Birmingham look at the consequences of what Japan endured in 2011. The disaster has had a ripple effect throughout the world, prompting international rescue missions and reactions from a range of NGO and aid organizations; some were helpful, some less so (despite best intentions). Only a few months after the earthquake, Germany committed to replacing nuclear power with renewables by 2022.In the same month, Italy voted not to restart its nuclear program and Switzerland put a freeze on the building of all new plants.
As for the survivors featured in “Strong in the Rain” - there is hope for some. Others will be adversely affected for the rest of their lives by a disaster that erupted suddenly, but whose consequences will, tragically, linger into the future.
LUCY BIRMINGHAM is TIME magazine’s Tokyo-based reporter and covered the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. A board member of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, she lives in Tokyo.
DAVID McNEILL writes regularly for the Independent, the Irish Times, and Japan Times, while teaching at Sophia University in Tokyo. His work has appeared in Newsweek, New Scientist, The Face, Marie Claire, New Statesman. He is a board member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan and chair of The Foreign Press in Japan. He lives in Japan.