Excerpted with permission, Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, by Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill. Available from Palgrave Macmillan Trade. Copyright © 2012. (Scientific American is part of Macmillan Publishers.)

“The world is heavy on us sometimes,” says Katsunobu Sakurai, recalling the day it almost crushed the life out of his city. The disaster began for him, as for millions of other Japanese, at work. The mayor of the coastal city of Minamisoma, Sakurai was with a group of visiting delegates on the fourth floor of the city hall when the building began to shake, gently at first, then in jerky, violent movements that seemed to go on forever. In some parts of the building, he could hear people crying. Others began pleading to the distance, to God, perhaps to the ground itself: “Tasukete!” (Help!); “Tometekure” (Please stop). Cracks opened up in the walls above his office. It was, Sakurai found, difficult to stay upright. He looked up at the ceiling of the 40-year-old building, then focused on a jug of water on the desk in front of him, catching it before it tipped over and spilled, jolted by the power of the quake. He was surprised to find himself not especially afraid. What will be will be, he thought.

There was nothing on the morning of March 11, 2011, that suggested it would be different to any other, or that Sakurai would become one of its unlikely heroes, his pinched, exhausted features beamed across the planet during the depths of the crisis. As he did every weekday since January 2010, when he was elected mayor, Sakurai strolled through the main entrance of the shopworn local government building, cheerfully greeting clerks before walking upstairs to his third-floor office overlooking a lattice of dense, squat housing stretching to the coast about seven miles away. When the summer sun shines, the coast is famously beautiful, anointed in the azure waters of the Pacific, attracting thousands of surfers to Kitaizumi Beach. In the winter, the majestic mountains to the west turn snowy white, throwing the dun-colored, aging buildings in the city below into sharp relief.

A typically busy schedule lay ahead: In the morning, a meeting was scheduled with his staff, followed by a speech to hundreds of youngsters at a graduation ceremony in a local middle high school. By the end of the day, about one hundred of the city’s children would be dead, some laid out in a makeshift morgue, and he would wonder, when he found time to ponder such things, if any were among the graduates he had met. After lunch, he was to meet a delegation of politicians from the Diet, the Japanese parliament, who were visiting the city. In the evening, he would see his elderly parents, both in their late 70s and struggling to manage.

A diminutive, birdlike man, Sakurai’s unprepossessing appearance hid a formidable will. Locals around Minamisoma were used to seeing him jogging around the countryside, training for marathons. He had been driven into political life partly by anger. After working the land locally for a quarter of a century, he watched in despair as Fukushima Prefecture, where Minamisoma is located, licensed an industrial-waste processing plant close to his five-acre farm. All the hard work that he and other farmers had done to build up the reputation of local organic rice and vegetables, purifying the soil of chemicals, was ruined, he thought. They took the plant operator to court in the nearest big city, Sendai, in nearby Miyagi Prefecture, but after a 12-year battle, lost. Throughout the fight, Sakurai was harassed and sometimes threatened by violent Yakuza gangsters, who control much of the labor for dirty, dangerous work in such factories and who resented his attempt to block its construction.

The clash with corporate power and the sense that it had conspired with officialdom against him and other small farmers left him shell-shocked. “We weren’t even allowed in the courtroom to hear the verdict,” he recalls. “I was angrier than I’ve ever been in my life. How could people far away from us make decisions that would affect our lives so profoundly?” He decided there was no point in just using the law to fight; he had to be in government, and so he ran for office.

Sakurai’s waking life was effectively parceled out among the coastal city’s employees and 71,000 citizens. The days filled up with school visits, speeches, reports, and meetings with parents, farmers, and workers—an exhausting commitment to public service that left little time for his parents, with whom he shared a house. Most days he was in his office till dark, toiling beneath framed pictures of his stern-faced predecessors framed on the wall above his head.

At 55, Sakurai considered himself steady in a storm, the embodiment of his favorite poem by Kenji Miyazawa, with whom he shares an alma mater, Iwate University: “Strong in the Rain / Strong in the wind / Strong against the summer heat and snow / He is healthy and robust / Unselfish / He never loses his temper / Nor the quiet smile on his lips / That is the kind of person / I want to be.” Those qualities were to be tested to the limit.

The explosive force that Mayor Sakurai and the townspeople felt at 2:46 p.m. had been released by one of Japan’s most unstable faults, about 60 miles east of his office and 19 miles beneath the sea. The earth’s crust is made up of eight large tectonic plates that have been moving and grinding against each other for millions of years, and the largest—the Pacific Plate—dips under the slab of rock underneath Japan’s main island, Honshu. Eventually, the stress of that friction is released, but seldom as violently as on March 11. Scientists would later estimate its force at over one million kilotons of TNT—the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 released fifteen kilotons. The force of the quake tugged the Pacific coastline 8 feet closer to the United States. Ancient Japanese blamed earthquakes on the angry gods. Even modern inhabitants of one of the planet’s most technologically sophisticated societies sometimes wondered if they were not right.

The shaking subsided. It had lasted perhaps five or six minutes. Sakurai took a deep breath to collect himself, led everyone he could find out of the building, and then began to round up his 15-member executive team. They would have to set up a temporary disaster response headquarters outside the building. As Minamisoma was a coastal city, a tsunami was very likely. The 40-year-old city building was too far from the sea to be threatened, and it had withstood the initial quake shock waves, but nobody would bet on it surviving aftershocks. People shivered in the bitter cold, but nobody wanted to risk being inside. Men and women began dialing cell phones to check on relatives, some crying when they realized the network had crashed, overwhelmed by data traffic 60 times heavier than normal. The huddle of voices around the mayor was tinged with fear, panic. Unknown to Sakurai, some of his townspeople were already dead, crushed under roofs. A 23-foot tsunami was 40 minutes away. And at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant 15 miles to the south, the power was out, detonating a chain of events that would, in a few days, turn Minamisoma’s incipient disaster into an existential crisis.

Japan has an earthquake detection and warning system second to none. The nationwide online system detects tremors, calculates an earthquake’s epicenter, and sends out brief warnings from more than a thousand seismographs scattered throughout the country. The system first detects evidence of P waves (for primary), which have fast, short wavelengths and do little damage. These are followed usually several seconds later by the destructive S waves (for secondary) with longer wavelengths. These snakelike seismic waves are the terrifying movements that destroy buildings and create landslides.