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My Japanese Earthquake Experience


By T. Patrick Lowry

March 11, 2011 seemed to be a pretty normal day for me. I was teaching English at a junior high school in Chiba, Japan. It was a very slow day since the ninth graders had finished their school year, and graduation was the next day. The Japanese school year runs until about March 20th, and a new school year starts mid April. About 1:45pm, one of my Japanese coworkers came in frantically yelling about a fire. A house across the street was burning. Great excitement! I went up to the third floor and took some pictures.

As it turned out, this was only going to be the warm up act. At 2:46pm, I was at my desk in the main office daydreaming about the pending weekend. Classes were finished and my mind was elsewhere. Then I felt this huge swirling motion with my desk. One of the Japanese English teachers, Mrs. Nakamura, was across the desks from me and said, “Is that an earthquake?” I stood up dazed and said, “Yes.” I waited a second or two and said, “I’m going outside.”

I was lucky because I was in a new building. It had been open for just over a year, replacing a building that had been deemed unsafe from earthquakes. I’m thankful the old building had been replaced, who knows what might have happened. The old building had more wood construction, and probably would not have done as well in a major quake.

I had to head through the lobby to get outside. There were a few kids around, but most of them were in their classrooms. I got outside and tried to get my footing. The ground was shaking violently. It was pretty much just like you see in the bad earthquake movies, just nothing was falling over. Running was difficult, The earth kept moving!

As I was outside, the Japanese teachers began heading out with their classes. They moved the kids as far away from the building as possible. In those moments, The buildings collapsing was not a far fetched idea. I was probably more terrified than the kids. They were pretty excited about everything, kind of like a fire drill when I was that age. The teachers told the kids to get in their class lines and be quiet. Japanese students are very good at getting into lines. Noses were counted and all were present and accounted for, thankfully.

The quake lasted for about five full minutes. It was very unnerving. We waited with the kids to see if all was ok, I fumbled with my phone to get details. The first reports pegged it a 7.7, then a 7.9. It wasn’t until much later that we would find out it was a 9.0! About 3:15pm, we started to herd the kids back into the school. Maybe two or three classes had just gone into the building when the first big aftershock hit. All headed out again. Then the decision was made to let the kids go back in and collect their things and head home a bit early.

I got home about 4:30pm. My apartment had suffered only minor damages. Stuff fell off my TV shelves in my living room. My 12 inch TV fell off my dresser in my bedroom, and the dresser was half tipped over, propped ajar by open drawers. Luckily, the TV didn’t break, cushioned by landing on soft tatami mats. All in all, I felt pretty lucky.

My immediate concerns were the loss of electricity and water. I’d grown up with a survivalist mentality and had enough water stored away for and earthquake, and a good supply of food. My friends were always amused by my backup supplies of everything, but I had heeded the warnings of being prepared for a quake or other disaster. I still had gas, CNG. My gas came in big canisters delivered to the building. It would be my heat for the night, as temperatures dropped to near freezing that night.

Saturday, I was getting ready to head tinto town to see what I could find out. My phone died about 4 hours after the quake and I needed to know what was happening. Just as I was leaving the power popped back on! I got my phone charged and turned on TV and got some English news

What has followed that time has been a bit strange. Where I live is about 150 miles from the crippled nuclear reactors. I have seen so much death and destruction on the television. I hear stories from coworkers and friends. My area is 90-95% normal. There are shortages that are always changing. Rice, bottled water, bread products, gasoline, toilet paper, and Coca Cola are things that have been hard to find at times. There are many factories in the tsunami/nuclear area that may never come on line again.

The most difficult part of life after the big quake has been the aftershocks. The first night was particularly scary. They were big and I was trying to sleep. Visions of my building collapsing were haunting me. It the 13 days that followed, I experienced over 100 more aftershocks. My nerves were frayed, to say the least!

I am one of the lucky ones. I had been scheduled to travel out of Japan. I’m currently in Abu Dhabi for some R &R. I am not sure if I will ever return to Japan or not. I am very nervous about the meltdown, and if my apartment will be safe again. It is in in a good location as far as being safe from radiation, but as the Japanese say, “Shoganai?” (What can you do about it?).

Brother Lowry joined the Arizona Alpha Chapter of Phi Delta Theta at the University of Arizona. There, he was a writer and editor in chief of the Greek Times newspaper.  Brother Lowry later transferred to the University of Colorado, Boulder and the Colorado Alpha Chapter. There, he was IFC Rush Chairman and IFC Vice President and following graduation, served as colony/chapter adviser to Colorado Alpha for four years.  Brother Lowry has been teaching English in Asia for six and a half years, the first two in China, and almost five years in Japan. He enjoys travel, Colorado sports teams, swimming, basketball, and learning about cultures and politics.