Firsthand Account of Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami from Katie Oi ’10

Katie Oi ’10 was teaching at a junior high school in Japan when the earthquake and tsunami hit the island. She offers the following firsthand account of the week following the disaster and her journey to safety. Katie is now back at home in Seattle, WA.

After a two hour nap or even a night’s long rest, I wake up suddenly feeling uneasy with a feeling like I had a bad dream somewhere deep within my slumber. It takes me even a few seconds to process where I am–back home in the comfort of my own bed– when it was just two weeks ago I was pinned in the heart of Mother Nature’s deadliest attack on Japan. I have to keep telling myself that the past two weeks were not a dream. What I witnessed was real: the devastation from a M9.0 earthquake and 30-meter tsunami, but also the perseverance to rise up as a people and continue to live in spite of all that.

THE SITUATION

Upon accepting the Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) position of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET), I traveled to my assigned placement of Utatsu in the small fishery town of Minami Sanriku. It was a modest town of approximately 18,000 people located about 2 hours north of Sendai, the largest metropolitan city in the Tohoku region.

I had a fixed schedule, visiting Utatsu Junior High School every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and alternating between 3 elementary schools every Monday and Thursday. As an ALT, I served as the students’ primary, if not only, exposure to the foreign world outside of Japan and sometimes even their town. My job criteria was not only to act as the “sample speaker,” but also act as the “inspiration” to open students’ worlds by showing them the opportunities English offered.

Any anxieties and doubts I had about living in a rural town on my own were quickly diminished by the warm reception I received from my students and the townspeople. The view of the ocean was also mesmerizing and I felt truly fortunate to be where I was. I found happiness at its most basic foundation: making connections and building relationships by conversing with the locals. My life was simple but it was rich with laughs and love.

A WARNING

On Wednesday, March 9, just before noon, I experienced my first large earthquake. In the middle of class and panicked, I dove under an empty desk while the other 2 teachers remained calm for the students. The students seemed unphased by what was later reported as a magnitude 5 to 7 earthquake. I was mentally shaken, but we resumed class as normal. There were reports of 50 cm tsunami waves heading our way but nothing threatening. The highest recorded was 60 cm high.

The news made me uneasy: they were predicting an even bigger earthquake to come sometime ambiguously in the relatively near future. I became earthquake paranoid. Everyone was talking about it, telling me there was a 99 percent chance of a large earthquake to come soon. However, nobody expected it to come just two days later…

M9.0 STRIKES

Friday, March 11, 2011 was supposed to be a day of celebration. My dear ninth graders were to graduate the following day, so there was much to be done. There were only two periods of normal class, then graduation rehearsal and decorating preparation for the rest of the day.

I had just returned to my desk in the staff room for a break when the M9.0 earthquake hit at 2:46 P.M. Across from me, the nurse stood up from her desk and shouted to the principal, “This is it, Vice Principal!”

Crouching under my desk with the earth rumbling under me, my thoughts ranged from, “will my desk be strong enough to withstand the ceiling if it should fall” to “why is this so long?!”

When it finally ended, we rushed outside gathering the students in front of the school. Students were panicked and many were crying. We were instructed to sit down as we waited for the aftershocks while teachers ran back inside to collect blankets, the students’ jackets and bags. The weather forecasted snow and for good reason: it was cold. My legs were shaking uncontrollably.

I had no idea that the tsunami alarms were ringing, warning the town to evacuate immediately to higher grounds. However, the elementary school students from below arrived within ten minutes and townspeople had gathered in our school parking lot.

As we continued to wait, we heard a loud crash in the distance that many mistook for thunder, when in reality it was the main highway bridge destroyed by the tsunami’s force. Some students ran to the fence to see the site and were aghast to find the water had already reached the elementary school.

We had to move to higher ground. We passed the outlook to the train station and I saw that the water had already drowned the entire platform. Nothing but the rooftops could be identified. The station sits on a hill higher than my apartment, so I then concluded that my apartment, along with all my belongings, was swallowed by the sea.

When we reached the top, we could see the bay of Utatsu and the terrible wrath of the waves covering what was once the place where we lived so peacefully. Snow started falling heavily as we waited for the sea to calm and return to its normal level. We waited for about an hour before it was okay to return to the junior high school’s gym for shelter.

There was no electricity and reception for cell phones was also down. We were able to gather some drinking water from the faucets before they stopped working. Other adults were quick to find the gas to use to boil water while students and teachers carried Styrofoam mattresses into the gym. I was surprised by the Japanese diligence to keep busy and do what they could for others rather than letting fear take over them. I was so scared, I didn’t want to move. I also didn’t want to be alone so I tagged along fetching water. Night fell and the aftershocks were endless. I couldn’t sleep and time never moved slower. It was impossible for me to sleep due to fear of another strike and coldness of the winter night. I passed maybe an hour in the comfort of eighth graders’ gossiping, but soon they fell asleep and I had to find something else to occupy my time.

I stood by the gas heater where a ninth grade boy later pulled up a chair and closed his eyes holding his head in his hand. We made little conversation like “were you scared?” or “are you tired?” I wanted to say something, make the mood lighter and see that smile that he always greets me with. But what could I say knowing he lost his home just as I had? “Yuma, we are going to get through this together,” is what I wanted to say but what good is it to comfort students with empty words? No one knew what would come after the first strike. My mouth opened in an attempt to say something but no words came. He would have seen right through my fake optimism so I just stood there, speechless.

On the outside I tried to maintain my composure and save face for my students, while on the inside I was emotionally overloaded feeling helpless, frightened and cold all at once.

Each day was slow and food was scarce. Since there was no running water, flushing the toilet was out of the question. So the bathrooms continued to pile up bags of used toilet paper and the grounds were dirty with feces and dirt. One small ball of rice was given to students twice a day, and gradually by each “meal” the ball of rice got smaller and smaller. It wasn’t an ideal system obviously, but it sufficed. We were all just grateful to be alive and together.

FINDING A WAY OUT

On the third day of camping out in the gym, I heard that one of my students and his family were going to Sendai to live with his older sister. I wanted to get to Sendai to try and catch a bus to Tokyo, if they were running. I asked and was granted a ride.

Leaving early on Monday, March 14, we arrived in Sendai after 5 hours. The driver, a friend of the family, dropped off the family and helped me search for a bus to Tokyo. Since there were no direct buses running to Tokyo and the line for any bus out of Sendai was over 1,000 people long, I gave up that day and headed back north. The driver suggested that I shouldn’t go back to Minami Sanriku because it was still very dangerous and not easily accessible for outsiders. He invited me to stay with his family, which consisted of his mother, his daughter and their dog, Maru-chan.

The family was gracious to me: properly feeding me three times a day and giving me a futon with enough blankets so I didn’t get cold in the night. The three days and three nights I stayed with them, we went searching for their loved ones at various shelters as well as took in the wasteland that was once Kesennuma city.

Seeing this family adamantly work was inspiring. The father never gave up hope, visiting the shelter locations multiple times searching for familiar names on the sheets of paper. Even though the family’s supplies were limited, the grandmother made rice balls and purchased toiletries for some of her loved ones that were camping out at the designated shelters. The diligent daughter contributed by making a checklist of people they were searching for and always had encouraging words for her father. Witnessing their tears of joy when they discovered a friend who survived was such a beautiful site.

Tuesday night, March 15, cell phone reception in scattered areas across Kesennuma city returned and the father drove me to a spot so I could make phone calls at last. I finally called my supervisors who instructed me to go to Sendai if I could. I checked in with Kyle Block (CMC ’10) who had sent me so many e-mails wondering if I was alive. There were such moments, just hearing the sound of familiar voices and reconnecting to the outside world letting everyone know that I was safe. I don’t think there was any other moment that could have surpassed this feeling of relief.

I owe so much to this Kesennuma family who sheltered and fed me, when they didn’t even know me. I have never witnessed nor experienced such compassion, selflessness and generosity until I met this family.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

On Thursday morning, March 17, the father was going back to Sendai to pick up the same family so they could search and salvage anything that remained from their house in Utatsu. This time going to Sendai, I had secured a plan to check in and remain at the Prefecture Office with my advisors until further notice.

I arrived there just after 3 P.M. relieving the worry about my safety my advisors felt. Then as my luck would have it, as I was telling them my ultimate destination was Tokyo, a Canadian representative walked in with some news. He told us that an Australian bus was departing Sendai for Tokyo at 6:30 P.M. and there was still space. I immediately signed on.

We made it to Tokyo around 12:30 A.M. Friday morning, March 18. We got there in good time because we were given a special permit to use the Tohoku Expressway, which had actually been closed down to the public. When we passed the Fukushima Nuclear Reactors location, we were over 60 kilometers away, which was outside of Japan’s labeled danger zone of a 30 km radius, but under America’s labeled danger zone of an 80 km radius. I had made arrangements to stay with a close friend who agreed to pick me up and let me stay with her for a while.

A DIFFERENT WORLD

In Tokyo, I found a completely different world from the past week of devastation, I showered for the first time in 7 days and have not been able to process anything that I saw as reality. I am in good spirits probably because I don’t know how else to respond to the horrific sites that I have seen.

REMEMBERING UTATSU, MINAMI SANRIKU

All I know is that the tsunami that hit my town was 30 meters high, destroying everything in its path. All I know is that in my town of approximately 18,000 people, only 9,000 survivors have been confirmed, but there are still 9,500 unaccounted for, missing, or dead. All I know is that I escaped to Tokyo but there are still thousands, if not millions, of people still suffering from the disaster and I am at a loss of what to do.

Schools affected by the disaster will not resume until at least May, if at all. I do not know the future of my job either. I do not know if I will go back to my town and see my precious students, ever?! That has hit me the hardest: parting with my students.

I don’t care about what I lost. It can all be replaced. What brings me to tears is thinking I will never have class time with these precious kids that I have come to love so much. Is it surprising at all? Here, I thought I would try and make a difference in their lives but it actually turned out that they put so much happiness and joy into my life that I can’t bear to think I won’t see them again.

“I know not why God’s wondrous grace to me he hath made known. Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love redeemed me for his own.” -Whittle

I am truly blessed. Thank you God that the timing of the tsunami was during school hours. Thank you for keeping me safe. Thank you for providing such a community of strong willed people that helped me pull through. Thank you for helping me find a passage out of the danger zone. Thank you for bestowing your grace on me and providing me with a family that welcomed me so openly even though they didn’t know me. Thank you God. And God, please bless these Japanese people who always put their loved ones before themselves and give hospitality to strangers. I am so grateful. How can I ever repay them? I have not known such kindness, seen such perseverance and will to live until that week.

People might think, her house was washed away and she lost “everything.” On the contrary, I have come to find it liberalizing. I have been told that sometimes God puts us in poverty to show us what is wealthy in our lives, and that is relationships. Amen.

Now, all I can see is the beauty in making connections with people. We survived the worst and we survived it together. My bonds with these people grew even deeper and my life that much richer. All I can say is, thank you.