Click. Click. Click.
And suddenly, something really important makes sense.
On January 17, 1995 pieces fell OUT of their place in Kobe, Japan. At 5:46am that morning, the residents of Kobe experienced one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history. A 7-point earthquake rocked the city for 20 seconds and when the shaking was over, 6,000 people were dead and over 150,000 buildings and homes had toppled.
At the time I was a student at Chiba University, a safe 400 miles to the north. We didn’t feel a thing in Chiba. Except, of course, we felt terrible. So some friends from my church and I went down to Kobe to help with the relief efforts during our spring break that year.
We slept on the floor of a church at night and during the day we helped people dig through the dusty rubble of their houses, searching for their belongings. Or we helped them move from a damaged home into one that had survived the quake intact. Or we distributed things like toothbrushes and hand cream. I remember very few people wanted the toothbrushes and the hand cream. What they wanted were tarps. Tarps to cover a hole in their roof, or to protect their belongings that they had gathered in a pile on the street. That blue plastic fabric was the most valuable commodity in Kobe in the spring of 1995.
One day I got a new assignment. An architect from the U.S. had arrived and he was surveying homes and assessing the damage. He didn’t speak Japanese so I was assigned to be his interpreter for the day.
We had two houses on the schedule that day. The first one was in a suburb on the eastern edge of the city. To me it looked like it hadn’t suffered much damage during the quake. The windows were broken and some tiles in the bathroom had fallen down and the interior walls had crumbled in some places. But overall it looked like a few trips to the Home Depot might be enough to fix this house back up.
The architect wasn't a big talker, which made my job that day pretty easy. He walked around the house thoughtfully, snapping pictures and making notes for himself on a clipboard.
I looked back at the house as we drove away and thought that this family was relatively lucky. I had seen worse damage, much much worse.
Like, for example, the next house we visited.
It was a single family home in the heart of the city. It was in bad shape. All of the external and internal stucco had been shaken off during the quake, rendering the house a carcass of beams. To make matters worse it was leaning on the house next to it, like an emaciated AIDS patient slumped against a hospital hallway. I stood in the striped sunlight in what had once been the kitchen and thought to myself that this house was hopeless.
Then the architect and I went back to the church, where he gave the staff his assessments.
He reported that the first house was in fact damaged beyond repair and would need to be razed. The second house, however, could be repaired with a fairly simple procedure. The beams, he said, could be righted again with a ratchet and a steel band. Once they had been righted, they would need to be nailed back in that position, then stucco could be reapplied and the house would be livable again.
I had one of those terrible moments as an interpreter when you’re pretty sure you’re saying the exactly wrong thing. And this can happen fairly easily with German and Japanese, because the verb often comes at the end of the sentence, and the interpreter has to guess what the verb will be and then do an internal check when the verb actually does come and make sure the guess was right.
Fortunately the architect was also showing the staff the pictures and they were as confused as I was. They questioned him.
“The first house, the one that looks pretty much okay, has to be torn down? And the second one, this bare bones house that’s leaning on the house next door, can be fixed easily?”
The architect nodded yes. And then he said something that made it all make sense. It was something that I had completely overlooked as we visited the houses earlier that day. It wasn't even on my radar. Something I never even thought to check.
It was the foundations, he explained.
The foundation on the first house was cracked and there was no way to fix that. When the foundation is cracked the structure is going to fall down. It just is. No amount of glass and tile and paint will help. It’s going to fall in.
The foundation on the second house, he said, was intact. While the structure on top of it appears to be hopelessly ruined, it wasn’t. Because the foundation was undamaged, the structure on top of it could be salvaged with minimal effort.
That was what mattered.