We only saw the tip of the iceberg that night. The next day we were bombarded with devastating images. Yes, there were the reports of people who walked for hours to get home. The images of the vehicles stopped for hours on the roads. The reports of banks and other businesses opening their lobbies for people to sleep on the floor. The things falling off shelves. The cracks in the sidewalks. All of those were just the tip of the iceberg.
The night of the 11th we saw a few videos from the tsunami, but on the 12th there were so many more. First cars being swept away. Then trucks. Boats. Houses. Businesses. Sea walls. Entire villages. And then we saw the nuclear plant – Fukushima Daiichi. There was damage, but we weren’t sure what the damage was. They had men in the plant, men risking their lives, trying to save the plant.
The damage was considerable. The area was uninhabitable. The radiation leaked into the water. People compared this to Chernobyl. Not surprisingly, Americans on the nearby military bases started to worry. There was talk of evacuation. Some just bought tickets immediately and packed up and left. It was difficult to know what to do. The Japanese government insisted things were under control. The American military insisted things were fine. But the American media made everything sound dire. Families were worrying and panicking. That added pressure to those of here.
The next few weeks were filled with this craziness . . . was the air ok? Was the water ok? Should we go home? Were we allowed to go home? The bases gave out Potassium Iodide pills. I still have mine – 4 of them in small silver wrappers. Of course, they came with a note that suggested they don’t really help people over 40 (me). And if things might get bad enough to need these pills, shouldn’t I leave the country?
In fact, the government did evacuate many military spouses and dependents. That contributed to some of the chaos. Was it necessary or an overreaction? If it was necessary, should more of us have been sent home? I work at the Superintendent’s Office. We and the teachers were deemed ‘mission essential’ so we were not allowed to go home. Many of our students did, though. The week after the earthquake was our standardized test. Many students weren’t there to take it. Some of the students who left stayed in the States through the end of the school year. Until they registered at a school in the States, they needed to get assignments from their teachers here. They didn’t have any of their books and materials with them. It was definitely challenging.
Operation Tomodachi started. Tomodachi means friend in Japanese. Troops from around the world came to our base to assist in the relief effort. Airports had to be repaired or rebuilt. Roads had to be cleared and repaired. And the amount of “debris” (I always think of small particles when I hear this word) that had to be cleaned up was enormous.
Americans living on base were hardly affected in the grand scheme of things. We mostly dealt with psychological effects. We were scared. There continued to be earthquakes everyday for months. Multiple earthquakes, some of them 6’s or 7’s. It became part of the day, yet every time the earth moved my body had an immediate physical reaction – my palms sweated, my heart raced. For weeks if the quake happened while I was home I would question whether or not I should leave my building. But now I don’t give it a thought. These buildings are strong. There was a quake this morning, in fact. I had no physical reaction. But for many, many months, it seemed like we were never on solid ground. That takes a toll.
We didn’t know if we had to worry about radiation. The base commander came on the radio everyday and gave air and water readings. He was positive and confident and reassured us by ending each broadcast with “The food is hot, the air is clean, and the water is tasty!” Yet, we knew that our Japanese friends were told not to drink the water. But how could we argue with the numbers? The command made it clear that we had a different water source than our Japanese neighbors.
We were asked to be more conservative with electricity. Our Japanese neighbors had regular black-outs to conserve energy. On base, we only had a couple of black-outs. Most of our conservation was voluntary. Just another instance where we had only small inconveniences.
Meanwhile, off base, there was no gas at the gas stations. We had plenty of gas on base, but Japanese nationals who work on base are not allowed to purchase our gas. The women who work in the salon next to my office road their bikes more than 10 miles to get to work and cut hair on base. The shelves in the Japanese stores were empty. They were told not to drink their tap water, but the stores ran out of bottled water. One of the Japanese workers in my office had a newborn. He had no access to bottled water. Japanese workers are not allowed to shop at the commissary and the exchange, nor are we allowed to purchase things for them. There are good reasons for these rules, but during this time, it was frustrating.
And even these are small. Travel a bit north and people had lost everything. Everything. Friends, family, homes, belongings, their town, their livelihood. Everything, except their dignity and their civility. There was no looting, no fighting, no stealing, no aggression. People waited calmly and orderly to get the help they needed. They were thankful for anything. That kind of traumatic experience might have scared me away from this country, but it didn’t. It made me love Japan. My heart swells with respect and affection for people who can remain calm, kind, and loving in the face of utter despair and destruction.
I know this is long for this challenge. We all want to read many blogs. And this really only begins to tell some of the story. Something to work on later. I am overwhelmed writing and thinking about it. Over 20,000 people died or went missing on the 11th. We are beginning to see the effects of the nuclear disaster. It is estimated that the 9.0 earthquake moved Japan 8 feet. The entire island moved! And it is estimated that it may have shifted the earth’s axis. It all seems impossible. I wish it were.
These are a couple of pictures taken by my friend. The first is the line of the commercial planes that landed on base and the second are semis loaded with water.