Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shake Until the World Notices: Japan's 8.9 Earthquake

*You all obviously have heard about the horrific 8.9 quake that hit north eastern Japan yesterday, March 11. I am writing this blog almost exactly 32 hours from when the quake hit and here in Chiba we are still feeling some shakes rather frequently. In order to try to give you some perspective of what is happening, every time I feel a tremor I will type, (shake) for each second the tremor lasts. Anything else I write in parenthesis is happening in real time as I write this.

This is my story…

“Keito Sensei, you can go home after lunch. We are just going to be (shake, shake) practicing for tomorrow`s graduation,” says my Kyoto Sensei (VP) to me. Well this never happens! I did my best to contain my excitement and show some respect.

“Oh wow! Are you sure that is ok? I`ll make sure Keima and Namiko don`t need anything first,” I knew they didn`t. He agreed that was a good idea. (shake, shake) I checked and indeed they said go home and enjoy the afternoon. SWEET!

I biked home after lunch eager to just sit. It has been a whirlwind since (shake, shake, shake) the entire Parade Queen extravaganza as I prepare for the parade on Sunday. (I will post about that, promise!) I was needing to pay bills, go to the grocery store as I had no food, study a bit of Japanese, do laundry, and pay rent. I was eager to be productive and put my life back together. I texted two of the other ALTs trying to convince them to somehow leave early and come play with me, but no such luck.

I paid a few bills on my way home, then snuggled on the couch watching TV on my computer. I committed myself to one more episode of Lie to Me and then swore that my productive afternoon would begin when that episode ended. (shake, shake, shake, shake, shake)

I was just getting sucked in when the house started to shake. Oh wow another earthquake, I thought, we had just had one Tuesday. Earthquakes are common here and I have felt quite a bit since (shake, shake, shake, shake) moving here.

This one seemed different. After about 10 seconds I sat up from lying down. It got stronger and louder. My little apartment is sturdy but sometimes even strong winds cause it to creak, so this was bordering on terrifying. About 15 seconds in, I stood up and looked around. This was one was different for sure. My (shake, shake, shake, shake shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake) mind shot back to elementary school, (shake, shake) and our earthquake drills. Get under the desk and protect your neck. That crossed my mind for a second but it was so loud and so powerful, and as a first floor resident I wanted to be (shake, shake) nowhere (shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake) inside. I opted for the outdoors.

I grabbed my phone and walked outside. As soon as I decided to exit, I got scared. To have to make the decision that this is a dangerous enough situation to take action, made it real. It didn’t help that I was alone either. I walked out and was greeted by crying kids, only confirming my suspected severity of the situation. That was exactly how I felt. My fellow evacuees and I found a spot with nothing but blue sky above us. I had my eyes fixed up in case anything was to fall. I watched a park car roll back and forth and wondered if it was going to be set in motion by all this. Car alarms started to go off. I hugged myself hoping it would stop as quickly as it came. No such luck. At one point, after about a minute of solid shaking, (shake, shake) it slowed and the fellow working on the house next door and I made eye contact, and nodded that that was most likely the end. We both took a step toward our respective homes. There was another huge shake. I retreated back to my original spot, now holding back tears. The crying kids were now accompanied by an ambulance roaring in the distance. Stop stop stop stop, pleaseeee. Finally it did stop enough to go back inside. It had been about 3 minutes.

I gingerly walked back inside and slowly opened the door to my apartment. Things had fallen off shelves, but nothing major. In my kitchen, a cabinet had opened, and for dramatic effect was swinging when I walked in. The spices from the cabinet (shake, shake) had landed on the floor. Two bottles of canola oil had also fallen from the same cabinet and opened, I had oil all over my floor. I felt like I was visiting a (shake, shake) crime scream. I did a lap of my tiny apartment not knowing what to do. I didn’t rush to clean anything up, almost delaying the reality of the situation (shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, SHAKE, SHAKE, shake, shake, shake, shake…news ding dongs signifying breaking news, just notified us of another quake in Fukushima, 6.0).

In a lame attempt to do something I threw a paper towel on the floor and watched it become immediately engulfed by oil. I stood glued to the ground in complete shock. The house began to shake again. You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. Again I exited the house, much quicker this time, I was getting better at this. This time I saw smoke in the direction of our local train station. Elementary school kids were arriving home from a local elementary school that I teach at, all of them in tears. (shake, shake) This one was just as powerful as the first, if not more so. I found myself widening my stance as I stood outside. This isn’t how this is supposed to go I thought, it’s supposed to last only a few seconds and stop. (News ding dongs again signifying breaking news, just notified us of another quake this time in Iwate, 4.0).

When it finally did stop, I went back inside to get a sweatshirt as it was now cold out, and going in and out was becoming a regular event. I left my Uggs on. One shake and I’m out. 

I turned on the news and immediately goggled “Japan earthquake” and was greeted with twitter posts that were rolling in by the second. Tried to text, couldn’t; tried to call, couldn’t. Went to Facebook and used it as a way of communicating with anyone I knew in the area.

A picture of the TV, initial tsunami warnings.
Immediately I wanted to check on the other Kamagaya ALTs. I wanted them home.
Sinapi’s status read… OMG huge earthquake!! My whole school has evacuated to the field, kids crying, so scary!!!

The kids! I totally forgot about all my middle schoolers who I had just left. I emailed the teachers I worked with, and Jessica in the north. I updated my Facebook status as an invitation for comments. I wanted to talk to someone. I wanted a hug. By now about 30 min had passed and the ground hadn’t really come to a complete halt. I took my phone and went outside, so the shaking wouldn’t be as intense. I walked up and down our alley just so I could be closer to the families who were now all outside. 

Via Facebook I talked to Jessica’s grandmother in the US. Jessica’s younger sister Julia was supposed to come visit today and we were all going to go to Hiroshima this week. That is no longer happening. L Sorry Julia, you will come one day I promise!

Also, via Facebook Sinapi urged me to come to her school which is around the corner. On my way there I met Kim who was arriving home. We walked to the middle school together as she told me she was in her elementary school classroom when the earthquake hit. It had now been about 2 hours, Sinapi was still at school with all the students who were only allowed to leave if their parents come to retrieve them. Kim and I found everyone on the field, and gave Sinapi a hug as soon as we saw her. As we separated from our hug, it began to shake again as was obvious by the rattling windows, the 3 of us glanced up to look and took a step back. We discussed the damage we knew of.

-Fallen things in our apartments.
-Kim confirmed the fire I saw as she passed it on her bike ride home. It was a little restaurant.
-The water pipes broke at our local grocery store and there was flooding, so evidently I was going to have to go with plan B for dinner.

Sinapi had to stay at school. We peaked in the teacher’s room and looked at all the fallen papers and books. Sinapi’s desk had moved about 3 inches. I got back to little JET village and saw Ian was home. I had yet to clean up the mess, but didn’t want to be in my apartment, nor alone. I went to Ian’s and we watched live coverage on BBC. I showed up to his house with a blanket and Reese’s pieces. I wasn’t hungry or cold, but both were making me feel better. There were constant strong aftershocks and every time, we stopped mid conversation debating whether or not to go outside. Ian’s girlfriend, my friend, Maya, was stuck at work. She is an elementary school teacher at an international school about an hour away by train. No trains were running, so she had to stay put. When we talked to her at midnight that night, she was still there with about 35 kids that they had just put to bed. I talked to another friend who walked 5 hours home, since the trains weren’t running. Another ALT was stuck in a train for a few hours without a clue what was going on.

Teacher's room at Sinapi's school. A block from my apartment.

A few hours of tsunami warnings and devastating news later, we had to get out of the house. We opted for McDonald’s. The four of us showed up to a shockingly crowded McDonald’s. I ate only half of my chicken sandwich set. All of us had our middle school graduation the next day, and we debated if it was going to happen.

After “dinner” we got back to our little apartment complex and basically stopped outside. No one wanted to be alone. The aftershocks were still strong and when you’re alone, it can be beyond stressful. Sinapi, Ian and I headed for my apartment where we absent mindedly watched an episode of Lie to Me before resorting to chatting and drinking, all as we constantly checked our iphones to update family and friends. We decided that every time the house shook we would drink. We all needed some kind of distraction and a few good laughs. Apparently we weren’t the only ones to come up with this little drinking game, I talked to other friends today who did the same thing. We drank and chatted until well past 3am. We all had to go to work at 8, but sleep wasn’t going to happen for anyone. Hugging my stuffed dog, and covered in blankets, I watched tv for a bit and got maybe an hour of sleep total. I was 24 going on 7.

I woke up exhausted and texted Keima one last time confirming that graduation was still on. He said yes, so I hopped in the shower. Still with limited food, I had to borrow rice from Sinapi to eat for breakfast. She confessed that she didn’t sleep at all.

When I got to school I found I was significantly less stressed just by being surrounded by people. It was familiar and I wasn’t alone. Not only that, it was business as usual, a surprisingly nice distraction. A few teachers checked that I was ok, and asked if I felt it…um YA! But that was about the extent of the conversation. I changed into my suit, and got ready for the formal graduation. (shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake) Their were tremors throughout the entire ceremony.

After school I came home and passed out. Woke up to hear about the nuclear explosion and was told to stay inside until they figured out exactly what was happening. Then we got an ok to leave so I rushed to the store, to stock up on everything. There was no bread, meat or bottled water, but everything else was there. After arriving home, I put some stuff in a backpack incase I need to run out the door again for whatever reason. I (shake, shake, shake, shake, shake) filled my tub in case we lose water, and put candles out in case we lose power.

No meat.
I am sleeping on my couch because in my room I have a huge dresser that literally has the potential to crush me. So I figured this way I have one less thing (SHAKE, SHAKE) to worry about. 

I haven't felt legitimately scared in a long time though it is so comforting to be surrounded by ALTs. I also came to the realization that this is effecting me on another level because when I signed up for JET I could have been placed anywhere. ANYWHERE. I consider myself extremely lucky to be where I am. Their are JETs in all the places that you all are hearing on the news. Please send prayers and positive thoughts their way. 

The latest: 
                   -Julia is not coming to visit.
                   -I am not going to Hiroshima.
                   -The St. Patrick's Day parade has been canceled.
                   -Maya made it to her parents house nearby.
                   -A few trains are up and running. 
                   -The tsunami warning does not effect me.
                   -We are monitoring the radiation. I am far enough away that I should be ok, though if the winds change we could be effected. I talked with a friend who checked and reported that the winds for the next few days will be blowing off shore. If that is the case, all would benefit. Let's hope, Japan is due for a break. 

I will update you with any new information. Though do know, that I feel completely safe, a little rattled, exhausted and on edge, but safe. 

Shake, Shake,

P.S. Make and earthquake kit. Seriously.


  1. Kate,

    It was nice to talk to you on SKYPE yesterday.
    I was glad to know you are OK. Believe me even I grow up in Japan each time even small earthquake hits, it sure make you feel very uncomfortable. I can imagine how you felt with this big earthquake.Staying with your friends is a good idea if that makes you feel better. Hoping it will settle very soon. I feel for the people who lost their family members and homes. Hoping help will reach them very soon.
    Take care and talk to you soon.
    We are all thinking of you.
    Love, Mariko and family

  2. Oh Kate you must be so scared! I'm so glad though that you live near other ALT's- It's comforting to know that you're all taking care of each other and looking out for each other. Thanks for doing such a great job of keeping us all posted- so thankful for the Internet right now and the fact that you have an iPhone!!! I'm also so thankful you live in a country like Japan and your house was built for this but please be careful. Talked to Aunty Reiko via Skype and she thinks our grandparent's hometown is completely wiped out, haven't been able to get in touch with anyone there, but we know my Mom's immediate family is safe. We are all thinking about you, feel free to contact me anytime, I know how scared and alone and far it probably feels xxxxxxxxxxxx

  3. Kate I love your writing.This blog is very powerful I wanted to hug you & stop the shakeing I admire your thinking & steps taken to protect yourself, love you & take care



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