Hagit Limor, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, is currently traveling in Japan and was in the country when the earthquake and tsunami struck on Friday, March 11.
I contacted Hagit through Twitter on Saturday night (Sunday morning in Japan) and set up an e-mail interview. I received her answers Sunday morning around 9:30 AM Central (11:30 PM Japan).
Q. What’s happening there, and what are you learning about this disaster?
A. It’s become a nightmare times three – first the earthquake, then the tsunami and now the continuing nuclear threat. In many places there’s still no power and the rest of the nation is cutting back power usage to preserve what there is. Journalistically, news coverage is 24/7, much as we experienced in the first days after 9/11 and to a lesser degree, Katrina. We’re seeing images you may be seeing too of the hardest hit areas that have been pulverized. Even out of that zone, some gas stations have run out and shut down, and supermarket shelves are bare. The aftershocks are continuing every day and the biggest worry now comes from those nuclear plants where the chief cabinet secretary of Japan just said he expects another explosion.
Q. What can you tell us about the mood of the people you’re interacting with?
A. People are glued to TV’s and smartphones, getting the latest information. The government’s offered a continuous series of updates from the prime minister, nuclear officials and others, so no one wants to miss the latest live details. People in Japan are well-mannered, soft-spoken and kind so even in the first hours, they masked their fears well in stoic fashion. Everyone got on their cell phones to make sure family members up north were ok, but cell service was very spotty so it took some people a while to get confirmation. Now, there’s worry and an immediate drive to help the hardest hit areas, with donation jars popping up. They’re intent to rebuild as they did after Hiroshima and Nagasaki but right now they’re still just hoping to find survivors.
Q. You were in Japan during the earthquake. Where were you, and what was your experience?
A. I was at Kadena Air Force Base in Naha City, Okinawa, having just flown in late that morning from Tokyo. Kadena has air force, navy, army and marines, many trained in search and rescue. We were getting briefed by commanders in each of the service branches when the quake and first aftershocks hit. They jumped on cell phones and I followed them to the hall and overheard as they started coordinating massive evacuations from Okinawa’s beachfronts. One of the captains also put me in touch with an oceanographer on the base who was tracking the seismic activity. We were watching in real time as the tsunami was still out to sea and approaching, which was surreal. We had a two hour head’s up in Okinawa so it hadn’t arrived yet when we left the base for a previously scheduled meeting with the state’s disaster chief. I could have understood if he’d canceled but he still met with us and I was able to get the first casualty report, which I reported minutes later on my station, in the first of 50 or so reports to my entire station group, C-SPAN, and a national radio show based at WGN in Chicago. I was also posting on Facebook, tweeting and writing a web script incorporating the information from the military sources and the disaster chief.
Q. Are you in Japan for SPJ, and if so, what’s the purpose for your trip there?
A. I’m in Japan on a journalists’ exchange representing the Society. It’s an East-West Center fellowship. We are being escorted by NSK, Japan’s national organization representing journalists. We’ve been meeting with reporters and editors all over the country, as well as business, political and military leaders. I often speak at conferences about the need to make sure you learn new skill sets to do your job in this day. This experience made that ultimately clear. Five years ago I couldn’t have reported nearly as effectively. Between Skype, Twitter and Facebook I could jump in from another continent and provide my company with valuable coverage. It was a case of preparation meeting opportunity.