Sakhalin Quake

Below is an emotionally moving message we received about the recent tragic earthquake on Sakhalin Island in Russia. --F&P
Sender: Tym Rondomanski ( )
Subject: Sakhalin Quake

Forwarded from a friend on Sakhalin Island

FROM: Michael Allen, 72470,3553
TO: Tym Rondomanski, 71001,3452
DATE: 6/25/95 12:32 AM
Re: Quake Article

Thought you might be interested in the article I wrote for "Russian Travel Monthly," which will be coming out in the July issue. Here it is.

I didn't actually feel the tremor, though it was only 100 km away on the other side of the island, because the music was loud and the party lively at the discotheque in Aleksandrovsk. Our only notice came from anxious parents who had felt the shock, and came pounding at the door in slippers to see that their children were safe. They were. The kids happily waved them off and the high-school graduation party wound down in the wee hours of Sunday, May 28, as such parties did that night in rec centers in little towns all across Sakhalin. In all save one; where the "last dance" took on an ironic, and fatal, twist. Where only one student from the Neftegorsk class of 1995 would be left to try and live out the promising futures dreamed of in valedictorian speeches.

We didn't realize the magnitude of the tragedy in Neftegorsk until the next morning. On the bus to Tymovsk two ladies sat on suitcases in the aisle, peppering the driver with questions about the first, sketchy radio reports: nineteen killed, some buildings down. With little or no faith in underfunded Russian rescue services, they intrepidly set off for the town to find their relatives when phone lines went dead.

Sakhalin's rescue team had by that time arrived: in all nine men, with little or no heavy equipment. Rescue teams en route from Petropavlovsk and Moscow would not arrive for another day or more. They joined the few survivors who clawed frantically at tons of block and concrete with bare, bloody hands to free family and friends in the wreckage, trying to shut out the screams from a few smoldering apartment blocks where gas had ignited. (The Neftegorsk Fire Department was closed down in 1992 for lack of funds.)

Arriving in Tymovsk, we learned the jolt there had been strong enough to awaken everyone in town. Friends said they lay in bed not quite sure what to do. Then they heard voices in the street: everyone had cleared out post-haste from the next apartment block over, the one for housing construction workers. It seemed prudent to follow suit. People stood around in the chilly moonlight for a few hours, then one by one gave up the vigil and went back to bed.

When I returned to the capital Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where I work as a community relations and Junior Achievement consultant for the multi-national oil consortium Sakhalin Energy, the phone was already ringing. It soon became clear this was a major disaster. My parents in the US were frantic with worry after hearing the first CNN broadcasts reporting "the city of Sakhalin" devastated by a major quake. Hotels were full of foreign correspondents looking for any available air transport to Neftegorsk (bridges on both sides of the town were washed out months ago and there has been no money to repair them yet).

As the scope of the tragedy unfolded, we kept in touch through contacts at the Emergency Committe, which met in standing session in the Administration Building across the street. Every morning the first order of business was to read the dreadful numbers: how many dead, how many saved... and how many children. How rescuers labored to free survivors, only to have them expire suddenly like candles when the crushing weight was lifted. Every morning came reminders of the critical need for immediate cash transfusions from Moscow. And every morning the expectation of an official announcement of Yeltsin's impending visit.

There was a curious new-found efficiency in it all, as if the earthquake that took twelve lives in the Kuriles last October were only a dress-rehearsal for this one. In a matter of a few hours, the Committee had already announced account numbers for hard-currency donations. And there was hope that funds would not go astray, as they so famously did last time: a commission of auditors from Moscow was already on the island investigating why more than half the promised 530 billion rubles for Kuriles earthquake relief is unaccounted for, while fifteen hundred families still await compensation.

In our office, co-workers gathered informally and discussed the latest reports, the latest rumors, with hushed sadness and occasional tears. When the power went out (curtailed schedule due to lack of funds), executives gathered in knots in the darkened corridor to discuss monetary aid and wild talk of ecological damage from leaking oil pipelines. We organized a blood drive, and I learned that Russians believe giving blood exacerbates near-sightedness. Doctors won't draw from those who wear -4.0 power lenses or greater. I said I'd never heard of such a thing in America, to which they replied, well, that's why so many people in America wear glasses.

I heard the frequent grumble of cargo aircraft, probably aid shipments landing at the airport. We watched the news and waited for word of a Yeltsin visit to Neftegorsk; but heard only that he had sniped at the the Japanese for trying to use aid to leverage their way onto the Kuriles. I remembered how Father Arkady, in black cassock and long white beard, had thundered against the insult of "humanitarian" aid during his May 9 Victory Day speech here, amid wild applause from a local audience that is fiercely proud of Russia's superpower status, and her ability to solve her own problems.

At the English club meeting later that week, an oil company seismologist was the featured speaker. He dismissed the rumor that intensive drilling had anything to do with the tragedy: the epicenter was deep, so much deeper than what drilling can penetrate that it's like blaming a mosquito bite for bone cancer. He divulged that the maximum expected earthquake in Sakhalin was believed to be a 5.5 -- until this week's 7.5. He bemoaned the fact that so much valuable data was lost because all but one of the seismic monitoring stations on Sakhalin were closed down due to lack of funds last year. Though it's by no means certain they could've predicted a killer quake.

By their questions, it became clear that Russians are chilled by the sight of ruined Neftegorsk in a way no Westerner will understand. Housing here is based on standardized floorplans, "Krushchyovkas" built in the late fifties and "Brezhnyovkas" built in the late sixties. Everybody knows somebody who lives in houses just like the ones in Neftegorsk. Everybody knows that construction foremen back then sold materials "on the left" and leavened concrete with extra sand, or cut corners to meet a Five-Year Plan deadline. Many spoke of going to live in shacks in the country, or with relatives on the mainland over the summer. But they know all the same that when winter comes they'll have to return to work, and look up on sleepless nights at the concrete ceilings that could plummet down upon them unexpectedly.

"Why don't you just move off this island?" asked one foreign correspondent. Move -- where? The Soviet Union was not a mobile society. Housing still technically belongs to the State, and the barter value of Sakhalin apartments has plummeted in the complicated three- and four-way swaps that have arisen in place of a free housing market. The best solution is to move in with relatives somewhere on the mainland, until (if) a job and housing can be found.

Of those who can, many are doing just that. This suits Moscow just fine. There is a much-discussed policy to give up on infrastructure improvements here and let the island revert to a "watch method" economy, where workers leave families on the mainland to come six weeks on, six weeks off to work the timber, the coal and oil. That's part of the reason why Neftegorsk will be covered up and not rebuilt. Part of the reason why teachers haven't been paid their $150 a month salaries since February -- no money -- but they can get their back pay in full if they're moving to the mainland.

The policy distresses native Sakhaliners like my friend Sofiya, who is Japanese by birth but native Russian by culture and language. Her parents were denied repatriation by Japanese officials after World War II when suspicion arose that her father might actually be Korean. On the return trip to Yuzhno she looked sadly from the coal-heated railway sleeper (that dates to Imperial Japan) at the piles of rusting construction materials, scattered detritus, car bodies, abandoned tools and helter-skelter telephone lines (also dating to the Japanese) that line the tracks. "For all our history, this has been a place people come temporarily. They don't stay. It used to be the prison island of the Tsars; then Stalin started paying people good wages to get them to work here after the Japanese left. They came, worked up a pile of money, and went back to their homes in the west when they were done."

School is out, and the exodus has already begun. Probably every tenth Sakhaliner will pack up and turn his back for good on the unlucky island this summer. But there are many who will stay, like Sofiya, who know this place as home; those whose ancestors have lived here since Tsarist exile, or those who came later and can't bring themselves to leave the salmon and the berries and the natural beauty of this foggy North Pacific shore. For them the future looks reasonably bright. There's hope of development fueled by oil revenues and opening borders to neighboring Asian countries. There's hope to find the money someday to upgrade seismic standards and infrastructure, to let Sakhalin live up to its valedictorian promise. We know now that we live in an earthquake-prone region, and we'll just have to make allowances, like so many other of our neighbors on the Ring of Fire. The only thing we need give up on is Yeltsin's consolatory visit. He's not coming.

Money is still desperately needed to pay for earthquake relief efforts here. A billion rubles has been received with gratitude, but that is far short of the 30 billion ruble burden that continues to grow. Donations may be made to the following accounts:

Corr. Acct #08150101, payee Tikhookeanskiy Vneshtorgbank MFO 277004 Acc't #76701/001 Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia (dollars)

Corr. Acct #08150101, payee Tikhookeanskiy Vneshtorgbank MFO 277004 Acc't #76801/024 Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia (yen)

The transfer shall be marked "For Earthquake Relief in Okha District" (Na likvidatsiyu posledstviyy zemletryaseniya v Okhinskom rayone)

For reference, correspondent banks include Republic Nat'l Bank of NY (608-205-524), Chase Manhattan Bank of NY (001-1-907557), and Bank of NY (890-0055-006).