The afternoon of March 11, 2011 found me walking up to the second floor of Sakurazawa Elementary School in Yorii-Machi, Saitama, Japan. The time was 2:44 PM. As I walked with two of my fourth grade students into class, I glanced outside. It had been a very nice, spring-like day in Japan. The trees were beginning to bloom and it was warm. The sun was shining. But over the mountains in the distance, there were dark, ominous clouds hovering. I was suddenly struck by an uneasy feeling…but I shrugged it of as I walked into class.
I waved hello to my students as Takada Sensei set out their nametags. It was 2:45 PM. Class had just begun. At 2:46 PM, I was faced with complete terror.
We heard a rumbling that started out very small but grew exponentially within seconds. Takada Sensei immediately shoved me under a desk and yelled to the students to get under their desks and cover their heads. I was experiencing my very first earthquake. The noise was deafening. The entire building was moving. The trees outside were flailing about as if they were twigs. Things fell to the floor.
It lasted for five minutes. Time seemed to stand still.
When the rumbling and quaking finally subsided, we attempted to carry on with class. Announcements were made over the loud speaker, but I could only understand bits and pieces. I stood there, in shock over what had just happened. The students were frozen with fear. Takada Sensei and I taught them some new words: scared and earthquake. I explained that where I am from, we do not have earthquakes. This was my first time.
Then, the first aftershock came. We flew under our desks for cover and waited. My heart rate shot to the sky. I had not yet begun to recover from the initial quake. The first aftershock was just as awful as the initial quake.
Sirens began to blare outside. The load speaker came on announcing that an 大きい地震 (ookii jishin-big earthquake) had just struck of the coast of Honshu, the main island of Japan.
I walked downstairs to the teachers’ room. Every teacher has a large metal desk. The tremor had been so strong, the desks had all been jolted several inches apart. Karl called to make sure I was alright. All power had gone out where he was.
We sent the students home. The teachers escorted them as they walked. The wind was blowing hard, creating an uneasy feeling. I was stranded at school as the trains had all stopped. One of the teachers was kind enough to give me a ride to my company’s headquarters and I eventually made it home from there. I was lucky.
At home, candles and plants had fallen to the floor. We eventually fell asleep around 1:30 AM, only to be jolted awake several times through the night by more aftershocks and our cell phone earthquake alarms sounding. I am still amazed I was able to sleep at all.
At 2:46 PM on March 11, 2011, Japan experienced an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude. It was the largest earthquake in the recorded history of Japan. We live approximately 250 km from the epicenter of the earthquake. I have been told that what we felt was around a 5.5 or 6.0 level magnitude. Aftershocks continue even now, after several days have passed. Several of these aftershocks have been 6.0 or higher.
The earthquake trigged massive tsunami that traveled throughout the entire Pacific basin. Japan was, of course, hit the hardest. They began immediately after the earthquake and continued all through the weekend. The visuals Karl and I watched on the Internet and TV were and continue to be unspeakably devastating. Living far enough inland offered us protection from the tsunami. We counted our blessings, but our hearts were broken for the people we knew were suffering.
And then a new emergency reared it's ugly head. Japan relies heavily on nuclear power. Many of the nuclear power plants were badly damaged in the earthquake. Circumstances deteriorated rapidly leading to multiple explosions. Fear penetrated deeply throughout Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people living near the power plants evacuated and continue to do so.
There have been numerous remarks made regarding the calm composure of the Japanese as they face this horrendous tragedy. While this is true, there are still traces of panic that reach hundreds of miles from the center of the disaster. Gas stations are closed. Entire sections of grocery stores are bare. Candles, flashlights and sleeping bags have all been purchased. People are filling bathtubs with water.
I was instructed to attempt getting to work throughout the week. Both Monday and Tuesday I went to the train station only to find nothing. No trains. No taxis. Only a couple buses. I was stranded at home.
The trains run on electricity in Japan. Because of the severe reduction of power happening due to the damaged power plants, there have been scheduled black outs throughout the entire Kanto Region (this means Tokyo and surrounding prefectures-including ours.) Many of these blackouts have been cancelled due to people simply using power more frugally.
I have been given a company car now to get to work until the trains are running again. I am not able to park at our apartment because of a construction project. Therefore, I park by the train station in a paid lot. This lot has a ticket gate that opens up to let you in and out.
Well, the power went out this morning. I got to the car and realized that I wouldn’t be able to get out of the lot as the ticket machine and gate were operated by electricity. Fortunately, there was a phone number posted on the ticket machine. I called it right away and attempted, very badly, to explain my situation in Japanese. The person who picked up knew English. Relief flooded over me as I explained that I needed to get out so I could go to work. He took down my information and called someone to come over and manually open the gate. It’s a good thing that driving on the opposite side of the road doesn’t appear to faze me in the least. I made it to work a bit late, but I made it! Being around people helps a tremendous amount when dealing with such a stressful situation.
Almost five full days have passed since the earthquake hit. Unfortunately, circumstances are still as confusing now as they were a few days ago. Should we stay? Should we go home? Should we leave Japan? Should we go to another area of Japan? Should we stock up on food? How do we help? Where do we go to volunteer? Are there other English speaking volunteers? When should we volunteer? Is volunteering even safe because of the radiation? What should we do???
Breath. Pray. Hope.