Return to the Tsunami

Passport: check. Clip-on lenses for iPhone: check. Voice recorder: check. Weather forecast: checked. Hotel and rental car reservations: kinda check. Notebook, ready pen, and open eyes/ears: yep.

If you know me at all, then you know that in 2011, the tsunami in Japan killed my Japanese grandmother, and that I subsequently deployed in support of Operation Tomodachi (friend), the U.S. military relief effort. Since then, I’ve told a highly-condensed version of my tsunami story for Anchorage’s Arctic Entries public storytelling event. I also wrote a short piece about watching Des Linden’s remarkable 2011 Boston Marathon from my hotel room in Japan.

But whether or not you know me a little or a lot, you probably don’t know that in the intervening years, the tsunami has loomed large in my imagination. That every time I run along Anchorage’s Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, I find myself wondering what it would be like to watch the Cook Inlet of the Pacific Ocean rear, then swell with pitiless energy. That when a recent midnight tsunami warning sat me up in bed, despite what I knew about the elevation of my home and the slim likelihood of a tsunami ever affecting Anchorage, I was seconds from bundling my family into the car in order to drive to high ground. That I set “Japan Tsunami” as a Google Alert and every morning wonder if my email will notify me that another tsunami has struck Japan.

But it’s not just about me. In the intervening years, I have discovered remarkable stories of the 2011 tsunami that deserve telling. Of survival and sadness. Of resilience and memory. About a year ago, I decided it was time to tell them. I started the process of researching, then pitching story ideas to editors at a variety of outlets. And after I landed the pitches, I applied for a Pulitzer Center grant to help defray what I knew would be a costly trip, and to my surprise, I was approved.

So. Here I go. I’ll be blogging the experience during my trip, so I hope you’ll consider following along here. If you want condensed versions, you can check out my Twitter and Instagram profiles.

Last thing before I go: a recent Google Alert made me aware of something called an edge wave. An edge wave has to do with the way that waves refract and bounce along shorelines. In the case of a tsunami, depending on how a coastal shelf looks, edge waves can extend the period of time a tsunami can effect a coastline. It seems a fitting metaphor. Eight years after 11 March 2011, I’m still speeding to and from the northeast coast of Japan in my mind, riding the tsunami’s edge waves like a piece of flotsam. But now it’s time to not just imagine it, but do it for real.


Sendai Airport, March 2011. Taken from an Air Force Pave Hawk helicopter about to drop me off for what was supposed to be an hour, but turned into two days.








Hot Link: Luke Mogelson Dispatch from Iraq

Oh Well (2) by Lydia Komatsu

“Oh Well (2)” courtesy of Lydia Komatsu

Once in a while, someone writes a piece of war reportage that will stand the test. The stars have to align perfectly — the right material, a friendly editor willing to deal with obscene word count, a lack of stronger competition within the issue itself — all this and more are the backstory to the most important pieces in the war writing canon. I’m talking about pieces like “M,” John Sack’s 33,000 word shot from Vietnam for Esquire, or John Hersey’s 30,000 word “Hiroshima” for The New Yorker. Even Mark Bowden’s original series of 29 (!) articles for The Philadelphia Inquirer that later became Blackhawk Down 

In the current fight against ISIS, the narrative no longer belongs to the U.S. military. Not in any meaningful way, anyway. That story belongs to the Iraqis who are putting it on the line.  Luke Mogelson bet 20,000 words on it, and I’d argue, hit the jackpot. I haven’t read a piece like this in a really long time. For you writers out there, pay close attention to Mogelson’s narrative stance: how he begins as a journalist, but ends with far more complicity. The strain is palpable in the writing. This is a piece you’re going to want to carve off some time, and some place quiet, to read this one:  The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS – The New Yorker.