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Hokkaido blackout reveals dangers of electricity-dependent society

Cars line the road waiting to fill up at a gas station in Sapporo's Kiyota Ward, on Sept. 7, 2018. (Mainichi)

Following the recent huge earthquake in Hokkaido, the entire island that makes up Japan's northernmost prefecture was plunged into total darkness, stretching to regions over 300 kilometers from the epicenter of the temblor .

The blackout, where almost all electricity traveling through the grid was halted across the service areas of a power company, was completely unprecedented in Japan. With residents unable to carry out even daily tasks, Hokkaido's main dairy farming industry also took a heavy hit. While power has now been restored to many areas, almost every Hokkaido household spent an uneasy and powerless night following the quake on Sept. 6.

The home of Sapporo municipal employee Yoshitomo Uematsu, 33, was still without electricity through the night of Sept. 7, over 40 hours since the powerful temblor struck the southern part of the island. His residence is completely electric, and as the sun fell below the horizon, the rooms of his house dimmed into pitch blackness. Unable to watch television, for two days, he and his family turned in for the night wrapped up together in blankets at 7 p.m. Periodically, he could hear the sirens of passing fire trucks and ambulances outside and feel the aftershocks from the quake. All of the time, he became painfully aware of how dangerous it was to rely so completely on electricity for daily life.

On the second day of the blackout on Sept. 7, he took a cold shower hoping to take advantage of the sun's warmth. Uematsu himself likened it to "after swimming in the ocean on a summer day," but his 3-year-old daughter started crying after only her head was drenched in the cool water.

What the family ended up depending on were slightly older devices and products. The toilet on the first floor of their home was completely electric and relied on power to flush, making it unusable. However, the toilet on the second floor was an older model that simply mechanically pushed water out. The new toilet was mainly used before, but Uematsu felt relieved they had kept the other one just in case.

In place of electric stove tops, portable gas cartridge stoves came in handy during the power outage. Rice could be steamed in a pot put on the gas flame, and with water boiled on the stove, instant cup noodles that Uematsu lined up for at the grocery store to buy could be prepared.

At the Sapporo home of a 35-year-old former university employee, the portable gas stoves also proved useful. The blackout still covered his home on the evening of Sept. 7, and unable to control the water temperature in his tank of about a dozen tropical fish, he adjusted the temperature with water he heated on the stove. "They seem fine for now, but I don't know what will happen if I have to continue doing this," he said.

One cannot count the many examples of items that completely lose their function when power is cut. Even if the runways at Hokkaido's airports had not been damaged by the rumbling earth below, without electricity, airline companies would have still be unable to issue tickets. While there was nearly no damage to gas stations from the shaking, gas pumps still depend on electricity, and customers remained unable to buy gas. Cash could not be withdrawn from ATMs, and credit cards and electronic money were also rendered useless.

Even for a seismometer meant to measure the movement of aftershocks, the weak point concerning the reserve battery prepared for the length of the blackout running out and rendering it unusable as well was also revealed.

What the people of Hokkaido seemed to struggle the most with was their smartphone batteries. Portable batteries flew off convenience store shelves, and lines grew outside mobile phone shops for access to chargers. Cars drove carefully while considering the level of gas in the tank, and some used the outlet in their vehicles to charge their phones.

Trouble with day-to-day tasks that residents gave little thought to before cropped up one after the other. Many people who had parked their cars at multistory garages and other locations that rely on electricity to move vehicles, could not get to their cars -- needed especially in an emergency -- and were left at a loss.

At a 24-hour parking lot near JR Sapporo Station, the electric-powered entrance and exit bars to the lot took almost a day to come back online. A 50-year-old man from the city of Chitose tried to retrieve his car after the quake on the morning of Sept. 6, but the screen of the parking ticket payment machine was pitch black. No management staff was in sight. "I guess automation can't be helped when there is a lack of workers," he said, and gave up.

At a 10-story apartment building in Sapporo's Kita Ward, unable to use the elevator, residents who were left with no choice but to leave the building via the emergency staircase found that since the autolocks at the entrance to each floor in the building were electric, they were unable to get back into their homes.

"I truly feel sorry for the residents that climbed the stairs all the way to the ninth floor, only to find themselves locked out and came back down," said a 44-year-old woman who lives in the building.

Minoru Watanabe, a disaster prevention and crisis management journalist, believes that the blackout in Hokkaido is a warning to Japanese society about its reliance on electricity. However, Watanabe points out, "The idea that you will be able to tough it out without electricity during a disaster is also not realistic." He says that making sure to prepare backup power sources in case of emergency is necessary, and "while you cannot stockpile electricity, there is a device that you can use to make electricity using a portable compressed gas cylinder. Electric cars can also be harnessed as energy sources."

(Japanese original by Kenichi Mito and Jun Kaneko, City News Department)

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