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First island typhoon experience

[This is a long post. At the very bottom is a condensed list of lessons learned if you do not have the time to spare.]

Since the typhoon was due to strike on the Monday, we started shopping for supplies on Friday morning. The 9th typhoon of the season, Maysak, had just passed a couple of days ago. We deployed the rain shutters and slept all together in the large guest room, 8 tatami mats, as the wind rattled and rain battered the house. Our house is very well built, so weren’t too worried. But the next typhoon, Haishen, was supposed to be way bigger. It was dubbed a Super Typhoon.

The North Pacific typhoon season has an annual average of 30 typhoons. Of those only about eight will hit Okinawa and the southern islands, usually petering out or veering away at the southern tip of Kyushu. About three will make it further to strike at northern Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu.

The more I went around town to pick up supplies, the more I saw people boarding up their stores and taping their windows, and the more rumours I heard about how this was a “once in a 30 year storm” or “No! Once in a 100 years!

Series of screenshots from a weather app showing the typhoon approaching

On Friday afternoon, the kids came home with a letter: school on Monday was cancelled due to the approaching typhoon. Things were getting serious. Haishen was massive, and the nightly news showed endlessly looped footage of historical typhonic destruction. The townspeople were getting anxious. Historically this area had never been hit bad, but with global warming, who knew what to expect? I certainly had no clue. Even though I lived in Japan for eight years, I was far from the truly destructive effects of a typhoon. Living in Kyoto and Nagoya, a typhoon to me was a massive rain storm that meant you needed to take an extra set of clothes and shoes to work, as you would likely be ankle deep in water and totally soaked when you arrived. Typhoon Number 9 hit in the middle of the night, so we barely experienced it. Although we had done some disaster prep, it felt like a practice run for Haishen who had our little island right in the sight of its menacingly calm Eye.

Our house here on Iki is right next to the port. There is a mere 60 meters of flat ground between my house and the ocean, with only a small hedge in the way — not your preferred barrier against unseasonably high waves. Also, our house is exposed on three sides. We are not protected by anything. There used to be a building next door, but it had been torn down before we moved here. Even though all the other sides of the house have rain shutters to protect the windows, that side does not. I made sure to tape the windows to give them more support in case something hit them from the outside, and also taped cardboard boxes on the inside in case the windows did break, to prevent any glass from falling through.

series of taped windows

The house has a second floor, and although it seemed quite unlikely, we decided to prepare in case of flood. I moved pretty much everything to the second floor: clothes, futons, computer, food, dishes, and a portable gas stove. Even if there was a flood and it destroyed the first floor of our house, we could come back and go upstairs and have enough supplies to live on while we cleaned up.

The biggest thing we were worried about was the loss of electricity. For the last few weeks the average temperatures were in the 30s, and we had to sleep with the air conditioner on. During Maysak, the power went out while we were asleep, but I only noticed because I had woken up in a pool of sweat. The AC doesn’t automatically turn on after a blackout. Heat exhaustion was a concern. But so was our toilet. When we moved into this house the kids (and tbh, their Dad) were super-impressed by the fully automated Washlet toilet. The lid opens and a little light goes on as you enter the room! It has a very soothing interface with all sorts of buttons labelled “soft”, “gentle”, and “powerful” that (inadvisedly) invite exploration. However, that interface is entirely digital. Which means: no power, no flush. You can imagine how this would be a problem when power outages after disaster average for about three days. On Friday afternoon I spent an inordinate amount of time online reading toilet manuals and learning how to flush during a blackout. In the end, it is easy: just dump a bunch of water in. On the advice of the cashier lady at the supermarket, we got a bunch of used plastic bottles, like for soft drinks or tea, filled them up and stored them the bathroom. If the electricity was out, and the water wasn’t working, we now had a ready supply of “flushing water” to pour down the toilet as needed. And if you freeze a bunch of bottles of water, you can leave them in the fridge to keep things cool in case the power goes out.

plastic bottles filled with water

Everyone knows to fill your bathtub full of water before a disaster, but our neighbour advised us to fill it with the hottest water possible, and use the bathtub cover for heat retention. That way you have an emergency supply of hot water for bathing, especially if it takes a few days for the electricity to come back on.

I was also worried about my car, which is a Daihatsu Tanto with a lot of headroom that makes me feel like it is going to flip every time I drive around a sharp corner. So I filled some 40L polyethelyne tanks — the kind we use for taking water up to the farm — and loaded them into the back of the vehicle in an attempt to hold her down once the wind picks up.

As rumours circulated, and anxiety increased, we decided to take a look at a number of evacuation centres (避難所, hinanjo) nearby. Being right on the ocean, we were in a prime neighbourhood for evacuation. After school on Friday, rather than hitting the beach with the kids like we normally do, we drove to all the nearby evac centers to check them out. We noted the travel time, examined risks en route, and toured the facilities considering how they would impact what we should bring. One designated evac center was a community hall which had its own onsen (hot springs), so that one was the leader for a little while, even though it was far from our house. The closest one was our town hall. They had reserved two large meeting rooms which weren’t particularly comfortable but had airconditioning. During Maysak last week they had sheltered about 8 families per room. Since many of the people that would shelter would be elderly, we didn’t really want to take any space here. However, as the storm grew closer and bigger, and worry amongst the townspeople started to rise, we heard rumours that the administration might open the elementary school gym next door. The town hall employees must have been fielding many inquiries. Based on these rumours, we decided to wait and see if they would open the gym, and evac there if possible. There is no air conditioning there, so we started to think about hydration tricks to keep cool over night. We had a couple of cooler bags we would fill with ice and drinks. You could put the frozen bottles on your head or under your arms to cool down. We also would throw in some thin, wet towels to wrap around your head/shoulders for a bit of a refresh.

The storm was meant to strike at 9am on Monday morning, but it had sped up and now it looked like it would hit earlier at around 6am. By our calculations the authorities would probably issue an “evacuation recommendation“ at about 12 hours before, by 6pm on Sunday night. We decided we would go then, and not wait for what was looking like an inevitable evacuation order.

The next day, Saturday, we headed over to Aeon, the big supermarket, with a list of items to buy: more large bottles of water, bread, granola bars, a battery pack to recharge our phones. What we didn’t buy were MREs or a lot of canned meals or canned bread meant for emergencies. After doing a bunch of reading on “rolling stock” and how to prep long term for disasters, one tip we learned was if you have kids, don’t pack special “disaster food” that they don’t eat it normally at home: they will refuse to eat it. Rather, take “comfort food” that your kids are familiar with, food that will calm them down when the wind is rattling the building and they are scared. I got a bunch of packs of chocolate covered almonds. Tasty and nutritious!

The day before I had my pick of the shelves, but today the parking lot was packed — busier than I had ever seen it — and the shelves were looking bare. You know the saying “never start a land war in Asia”? Well, I would also add: avoid the bread aisle before a typhoon. Luckily, my children are small, so I sent them into the “bread war” and they were able to extract a couple of loaves from behind the front lines like a couple of special ops pros. All the water was gone by this time, so we ended up with a bunch of bottles of tea that nobody wanted. Also, all of the cooking gas canisters were sold out. (TIP: prepare early!)

Back at home we continued preparations outside of the house: brought into the house what we could from the “yard”; cleaned up all the loose leaves etc; pulled up the last remnants of our garden, bundling the bamboo stakes and storing them safely. In the evening we packed things upstairs and eating all the food in our fridge that could spoil during an outage. In the evening we watched the TV news. I kept track of the storm’s progression on various apps and Twitter. I was watching stormchaser James Reynolds coverage of the Amami Islands to the south.

We knew that the storm would lose power before it made it to us near the north of Kyushu, but question was: by how much? It made sense to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

On Sunday morning at around 9am the neighbours came over to tell us they heard that the town was going to open the school gym. They were planning on evacuating there, and in fact were going now to reserve a spot. My wife and I looked at one another: “You can do that!?” This is probably the biggest lesson we learned during this whole experience.

The BIGGEST lesson for those that skim long blog posts like this:

Go to the evacuation center early. Don’t wait until an evacuation order, or an evacuation recommendation. Go to the evac center as soon as you can to register. Take a few blankets or tarps to lay down and “save” your a spot. Registration can take a little while, especially under coronavirus measures when you have to fill out some extra forms and take everyone’s temps etc. Once you have your spot, you can go back and forth bringing stuff as needed before the wind gets too dangerous. This might not be the practice in bigger city centers, but this is how it works in this rural community, so keep that in mind when you are wondering what to do.

a plastic mat spread out on a gymnasium floor
Saved some space

At the evac center town staff were sectioning off the gym with bits of tape to ensure social distance measures. Masks were mandatory of course. They brought in a couple of mobile aircon units and fans to keep everyone cool and opened some windows high up to ensure circulation. It was all very well organized. We took a few trips throughout the day, bringing extra pillows and blankets, and some cushions to sleep on. We brought a ton of frozen drinks, which wasn’t really necessary with the aircons keeping everyone relatively cool. We decided against bringing any instant ramen, but later regretted that when we saw the town staff had set up electric kettles. By 5PM we had done what we could at the house — turned off the power breaker (except for the fridge), locked up — and had transitioned completely to the evac center. Ignoring all social distancing rules I parked my roly-poly vehicle tightly between a van and the wall of a building. She wasn’t flipping over if I could help it! Now we settled down on our cushions on the gym floor, and waited for the storm to hit us.

two stuffed bears sit on a cushion in a school gym
We brought the “bear” essentials to the evac centre

The evac center was really boring. Since I was trying to conserve battery power on my phone I was not spending much time on the web or Twitter. There were no games or sing-a-longs or anything. Mostly just people laying down, resting, waiting, occassionally going outside for a smoke or to cool off. The aircons were not powerful enough to really cool down the whole gym, especially when all the bright lights were on. Everyone just sat quietly, fanning themselves. We were lucky that the neighbour kids were in the section right beside us so all the kids could play together. I probably played a hundred games of UNO. The town staff had a radio at very low volume and were updating a hand drawn map of Kyushu on a whiteboard with hourly updates on the location of the storm and its readings: pressure, average wind speed, gust wind speed, and how quickly it was moving.

Haishen was a Category 4 typhoon. As it moved north and over the landmass of Kyushu, it would power down and be a Category 1 by the time it hit us. Unfortunately, it started drifting west, which means it would not go over land and dissipate. The Eye was was moving up the western coast of Kyushu, lashing the mainland in a sort of climatic drive-by. We were about to become a casualty.

As the evening wore on, a few more people trickled into the evac center. In total, only about 50 people came, taking up about half the elementary school gym floor space. This was the overflow space, the main evac center was the nearby town hall, with its fancy aircon. We were lucky our gym didn’t fill up considering the heat. As it got dark outside people took turns in the washroom brushing their teeth.

stuffed bears in neck pillows and personal electric fans lay on cushions
Almost lights out in the evac centre

Once the lights were turned off, the building cooled off fairly quickly. The approaching storm had dissipated a lot of the humidity and it was pretty cool outside too. The wind and rain started battering the high windows of the school gym, and everyone laid down. The storm had sped up again, and was to hit Iki at about 4am. I put in earplugs, and tried to sleep.

Darkened gym
Lights out.

Throughout the night, I woke up a number of times. Town staff had been taking shifts: updating the whiteboard, making sure the coolers were working, checking that no windows were broken. They did an excellent job — I was impressed! What about their families? These were just office staff, not rescue workers. I guess, everyone who can lend a hand, should. The Swiss Army knife on my belt dug into my side as I lay in the dark, listening to the storm outside.

The kids slept like logs. Elderly people took trips to the washroom. (I took trips to the washroom). Rain rattled the windows. The wind whistled, trying to get everyone’s attention. We were safe in the concrete building. Apparently the power went out a couple of times, but only for a short while. I must have been dozing at the time.

Outside turned from black to grey as the obscured sun rose. By about 7am most people had roused. The whiteboard showed the Eye had passed Iki and was bearing down on Tsushima. I checked my weather app and got the latest numbers. The storm had lost quite a bit of power as expected. It was a Cat 1, borderline Cat 2. We had dodged a bullet.

The rain had stopped but the wind was still buffeting the outside of the building. Looking at the typhoon maps, I figured we had a few more hours until the wind died down and we could go home. After about 20 minutes though, everyone started packing up! So, we followed their lead.

The aftermath

Back home we were happy to see nothing was broken and the power was on. The first thing we did was take showers, change, and eat breakfast. The wind and rain was intermittent, but still a factor. I kept the rain shutters closed for safety’s sake. We watched the news, started putting things back into their right place, took naps. Images of damage on Iki started surfacing on Twitter.


We got off lucky compared to the south. Damage reports are still coming in. Two have died and may injured. Mudslides have caused lots of damage. There are people in Kagoshima that still don’t have power. Many farm animals like pigs and chickens have died. Kyodo has some pictures of the damage.

In the evening, once the storm had lifted, we drove up to our little farm and found another victim of Haishen: our corn. We salvaged what we could, went home, and turned in early.

broken stalks of corn
Our flattened corn

Today we spent the day cleaning up around the house, washing the car, hosing the salt spray off the windows, doing laundry, putting stuff back. It was a beautiful day. I flew the drone over the house to check the roof tiles for damage.

animate gif of roof tiles as a drone passes over
Scanning the roof for damage

All in all, this was a good experience. We were able to gain a lot of wisdom and lose nothing but time (and some stress). We now have a proper disaster setup, know the right procedures for evacuation on Iki, and best of all know the luxury of running water, electricity, and a dry bed. We might have gone a bit overboard, but better safe than sorry. Next time it should be much smoother with much less stress.

The condensed list of tips for those that don’t like to read long, in-depth blog posts, no matter how wittily they are written

  1. Learn how to flush your toilet manually.
  2. Store water in empty bottles (could be used for drinking, or washing, or manually flushing your toilet).
  3. Fill your tub with the hottest water you can.
  4. Take “comfort food” that will calm your kids down, rather than “disaster food” that your kids will refuse.
  5. Tape up windows without rain shutters. Add a layer of cardboard in case the glass does break.
  6. In the summer, beware of electricity outages. The lack of AC means heat exhaustion is a real threat. (And I suppose cold in the winter).
  7. Frozen veggies (like edamame) that you eat just by thawing (ie. without cooking) are super useful. They can be used for keeping other things cool, and then you can eat them!
  8. If you have a second floor on your house, consider moving important items upstairs in case of flooding.
  9. Check out the routes to nearby evacuation centers and consider the risks during transit.
  10. Get to the evacuation center early. Reserve space, and spend the day making multiple trips, rather than trying to make a mad dash.
  11. They will likely have hot water at the evac center, so it is okay to bring instant ramen.
  12. You will probably eat a lot less food than you think while you stay overnight at the evac center. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pack lots.
  13. Prepare early.