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Two years ago, the earth shook in Japan and changed many lives forever. Geordie and I were lucky in that we lived far enough away from the epicenter of the Tohoku Earthquake to suffer too much damage. I wrote about the actual earthquake more than a year ago, and I keep meaning to finish writing about that day and the one that followed. Well, here’s a bit more of the story. Not all of it – it’s a bit too long to post all at once. I’ll write what I can manage now and try to write more later. Hopefully, the next installment won’t take another year to get done.

If you haven’t already, you should probably read the Earthquake (I) first.

—–

Though the worst of the earthquake was over, the aftershocks came steadily. I never really felt balanced the rest of that day. I put on my work clothes as quickly as I could, and I left to go to Loc City, the mall where my branch of Nova was located. I had no idea what to expect on the 10-minute walk. I tried calling Geordie again, and that got me nowhere. I wondered how big the earthquake had been, where it had originated. I had lived through weather-related natural disasters before, but nothing had prepared me for an earthquake like this.

My walk to work was usually a quiet one, but it was especially so that afternoon. Cars were still on the roads, but there were very few of them, and they went slowly. I too went slowly – the ground still moved uneasily. And at one point, I passed a car dealership that had lost a panel of glass during the quake; it had shattered all over the sidewalk. Just beyond that was a liquor store that smelled strongly of alcohol. Likewise, the 7-11 was a mess, and the three workers inside looked at a loss for what to do as the aftershocks kept coming.

A street behind the businesses ran parallel to the main road, and it had mostly houses along it, all eerily quiet. I saw only two women, neighbors, who stood clinging to the supports of their carports, calling to each other. I walked by them – there was a gap between two buildings where you could see the houses – just as a large aftershock hit. They both shrieked and held on; I had to read out and steady myself on another carport. It took nearly a minute for that aftershock to pass. One of the ladies saw me and shouted at me to be careful; I said thank you and moved on.

Loc City has a large parking lot that covers three sides of the mall. There were cars parked on the side I always used to enter the mall, and there was also a handful of people sitting a good distance away from the building. They looked like store employees. Since Nova was on the opposite side of the mall, I decided to walk around to it and see what was happening there. There were cars on that side too, and a lot more people. Most of them were sitting at the far end of the parking lot, as far away from the mall building as possible. I started walking in that direction, and it didn’t take me long to pick out my manager in the crowd, sitting on a parking bumper and looking forlornly at her phone. She looked almost relieved to see me.

Unfortunately, she knew as much (or, rather, as little) as  I did. Loc City had been evacuated during the earthquake, and nobody could go back in until it was declared safe. She didn’t think it would be any time soon because of the near-continuous aftershocks. The worst for her was that she couldn’t get in contact with any of the branch’s higher-ups, and considering she’d only been working at Nova for about five months, she had no idea what to do. So we did the only thing we could do: we waited.

About thirty minutes later, we were allowed back into the mall – employees only, of course. Not that there were any customers hanging around; I’m sure they did what all sane people would do and get themselves home immediately to find out what happened. The mall had held together pretty well: a few broken glass panels and some toppled-over displays were the worst I saw. Nova sustained little damage, but then we occupied a pretty small corner of the mall and had nothing much to make a mess of. The power was on, which was the most important thing. I logged onto the computer to find out what had happened, while the manager attacked the phone and started calling whoever she thought might be able to tell her what to do.

By this time, the tsunami warnings had been issued, and I tried to wrap my head around how strong this earthquake had actually been. It was nothing I could have imagined. Even worse, I knew Geordie was both closer to the earthquake epicenter and closer to the coast, and so must have had a worse experience than I’d had. Somehow, he’d been able to post to Facebook that he was okay, and I had the feeling that was the only thing I was going to hear from him for a while. I did the same, knowing that our families back in the States would be waking up to the news and need some reassurances.

An announcement from Loc City came over the speakers, which the manager translated for me: the mall was not going to re-open and it would be closing even to employees at dusk. The manager still hadn’t made contact with her boss, so to kill time, she settled in to start calling students to tell them that classes had been canceled. She told me I could go home, but I wasn’t in any hurry to do so, so  I told her I’d stay with her a little while longer. Again, she seemed a little relieved.

All the while, the aftershocks kept coming, some of them fairly strong. About 4:30pm, another announcement was made: Loc City was closing at once, right now. We had no choice but to leave. I still hadn’t got hold of Geordie, and I had no idea if he was on his way or was stuck in Hitachi or what. I told the manager I’d walk to the station with her; I was curious to see what was going on there.

As it turned out, nothing was happening. The trains were shut down indefinitely. Neither the manager nor myself were that surprised. Much of the Tsukuba Express is elevated, while most of the rest of it travels underground.  While it would have been nice to find them running, I can only imagine how dangerous it would have been. The local line was also stopped. The station was in the throes of controlled chaos. Nobody seemed to know what to do. Buses were still running, but the lines for them stretched longer than they’d ever been. At least thirty people were standing in line at the taxi pick-up, even though there were no taxis to be seen at all. Across the street, Moriya’s only hotel had a line out the door.

“What are you going to do?” I asked the manager.

She took a deep breath and said, “I will try to call my boyfriend. He is in Kashiwa.” She normally took the train to work, just two stops on the Tsukuba Express. Not so far, but now it seemed like a long way away. Still, he was closer than Geordie was. And he had a car. If she got hold of him, he could come and pick her up.

“That’s good,” I said. “I’ll go home too. I’ll see you on Monday.”

“Okay,” she replied. We waved goodbye, and that was the last time I saw her.

I don’t mean that in an ominous way. I heard nothing from Nova over the weekend, so Geordie and I walked by Loc City on Monday. It was closed. Tuesday was supposed to be my final day teaching, the only day of work at Nova that I had actually looked forward to. There were a lot of students I hadn’t been able to say a proper goodbye to. Loc City was open on Tuesday, but Nova was not. Even though I had come to hate my job at Nova, there were still many students I enjoyed teaching and talking to, and I wish I’d had one more opportunity to tell them so. It was not how I wanted to leave the company, but there was nothing I could do about it.

(to be continued)

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A year ago, I was sitting in my apartment in Moriya, Japan and writing an email to my brother. And then the earth began to move. It moved in ways I’d never felt before, in ways I never thought it could. Although I was lucky enough to be outside the major damage area, but the Tohoku Earthquake changed my life nonetheless. It was a day I will never forget.

I’ve already written about the actual earthquake and my experience of it. You can read that post at The Earthquake. There is more to this story. There was the walk to work and all the aftershocks that forced us all home early, the transportation lockdown that stranded people – including Geordie, who was a three-hour train ride away, the worry for him being further north and therefore closer to the epicenter, the exhausting and sleepless night as I lay awake in the dark and wishing the earth would stop moving, the wait to hear from Geordie, the wait for him to arrive home. And the weeks that followed, with the threat of radiation, with the episodic panics, the decisions we made – including the one to stay in Japan and see things out, even though I was three months pregnant. It was the most turbulent spring I ever experienced.

I’ll write about those weeks eventually. Soon, I hope. My story is not so harrowing, but I know how lucky I was. I know people who lost everything to the earthquake and the resulting tsunami. My thoughts and prayers go out to them tonight, to the ones who were lost and to the ones who survived.

I was not quite ten weeks pregnant when the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of the Tohoku region of Japan. Although Geordie and I made it through without any injuries or damage, it changed our lives. For today’s Nanowrimo writing session, I spent a good chunk of it writing down my memory of that day. Here’s an excerpt about the exact moment the earthquake hit, just those first few minutes as it happened and before I knew the full extent of the damage.

—–
March 11.

A Friday. A good day, then, because Geordie would be coming home. He’d meet me as I was finishing work, and we’d probably have dinner together in Loc City. Ramen, maybe. Then home to relax a bit together and to talk about the week. Those were all the plans we had made.

My shift started at five, though I usually went in early, around four. I did my hair in the morning but would not bother with getting fully dressed until three or so. A little after two, I sat down to the computer to write an email to my brother. I had been putting it off, as I often do; I am not the best of penpals. It even took me a while just to get the email written. As I wrote, the apartment began to shake – another earthquake, a minor occurrence in Japan, for the most part. It gave me something to share with Ryan, and I added a sentence about it to his email.

The ‘quake started small. It felt like any other ordinary earthquake, one of dozens I’d felt since I arrived in Japan. After the few seconds of shaking, you go back to your usual business, as though nothing had really happened. One had woken me from my sleep on Wednesday morning, a little stronger than usual but nothing to get worked up about.

But the shaking did not stop. Instead, it intensified. That made me pause.

“Don’t panic,” I said aloud to myself. It would die down in a moment; it always did. I had never before been in an earthquake that had actually scared me.

Then a can of soup fell off the shelf above the kitchen sink, and I knew that this was not an ordinary earthquake, that it was something big, that I could not just sit there and wait for it to stop. Other things began to fall, including one of my rose pictures in the hall. I leaned over my computer and took down my diploma so it wouldn’t fall on the monitor.

I stood and pulled open the curtains of the sliding glass door at the front of the apartment. Across the narrow street was an empty house, and a couple hours earlier, two men had shown up to do some work on the interior. They ran out into the street as the shaking continued, holding their arms out to balance themselves. They spoke to each other. Often, I could hear when people on the street spoke, but because of the noise of the earthquake, I couldn’t hear the workmen. Some earthquakes are quiet, but with some come a rumbling, a deep and earthy sound like terrestrial thunder. This earthquake brought that sound.

Everything in the apartment moved, rattling about, a surprisingly tremendous noise. I suddenly did not what to stay in the apartment any longer.

I had on only a t-shirt and a pair of around-the-house boxer shorts. Grabbing the closest pair of pants to me, I pulled them on and put my cell phone and wallet into the pockets. I went into the hall and pulled on my heavy winter coat, leaning against the wall for support. Without bothering with socks, I slipped into my shoes and reached for the front door. My hands shook as I laid them on the door handle, and I thought that it was not just because of the earthquake’s shaking and the cold. After at least one minute, the ‘quake still had not abated. It felt like it would never end.

I can’t say how long exactly the earthquake lasted – somewhere between two and three minutes perhaps – but it felt like an eternity as I stood on the street and watched the houses shake on their foundations. The street moved – back and forth – and the electric lines overhead swayed and jumped, pulled taut before sagging and then going taut again. No tall buildings were in the area, so I didn’t worry about anything falling on me, but those wires made me uneasy. It was hard to stand up straight; I rocked from side to side as though I were on a boat.

Most of the buildings on my street were residences, but because it was the middle of a week day, not many people were at home. Only a few came out into the street, and all of them save for the workmen and myself were elderly. They clung to fences or carport supports and said very little. A crash came from the home across from my apartment, and one of the workmen ran back inside.

After a time, just as it felt like the earthquake would never end, the earth began to calm, and the shaking died away. It did not stop altogether, not immediately, but the buildings ceased their swaying, and it was possible to walk easily again. I stood in the street, pulling my coat around me, shivering with cold and fear. I did not know what to do.

My direct neighbor in the apartment home came outside and into the street, looking around amazed but unshaken. She said to me in Japanese, “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I’m okay,” I said. “Are you?”

“I’m alright.” She nodded her head and added, “That was very big, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Very big,” she repeated. “Probably a 5.”

It did not occur to me until later, after I knew the full magnitude of the earthquake, that I realized she meant that by the Japanese scale, which tops out at 7.

She waved at one of our neighbors down the street and called to them, leaving me alone. My thoughts flew to Geordie; I didn’t know where the earthquake had originated, but I was sure he had felt it to some degree. I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and dialed his number. All lines were busy, as I had guessed they would be. That didn’t stop me from trying again.

I went back into the apartment to survey the damage. Only one plate in the sink had broken, probably from the soup can that had dropped on it. Books and other odds-and-ends had fallen off the coffee table and my tall bookshelf, but nothing had broken. My desk had been pulled away from the wall. The wall on the left side of the window over the couch had cracks at the window’s edges. Everything was in disarray, but that seemed to be the extent of the damage. The power was off.

The aftershocks came steadily, some of them stronger than other earthquakes I had felt in the previous two years. The sliding doors that separated the two rooms rattled constantly, and I knew I could not stay there. I decided to dress properly and go to work. I could think of nothing else to do.

(to be continued)

The Earthquake (II)

Sara

I am a daughter and a sister, a wife and a friend. I am a reader and a writer, a dreamer and a realist, a teacher and a learner. I am the mother of a baby born sleeping. I am on a journey of healing, walking a path paved with tears and grief and hope.

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