March 11, 2011, 2:47 p.m., a date and time no one in Miyagi Prefecture and the Tohoku Region will ever forget. I had just returned to the Miyagi prefectural government office after visiting one of our local miso companies. I was sitting at my desk, getting ready for a meeting with my boss, when the earthquake early warning system alert went off. Then right after the alarm, the building began to shake, and at first my colleagues and I just grabbed the cabinets and files to prevent them from falling. The shaking became more and more intense to the point where we could no longer stand and our boss was yelling for everyone to take cover.
It’s hard to tell how long it really lasted because after that first earthquake, several others followed and felt equally as intense. Finally when things seemed to settle down, we all stood up in shock. My desk had moved more than a foot to the left; my chair wheeled its way more than three feet away and all our files were on the floor. Then I heard “Tsunami warning for Miyagi!” When the emergency generator started working and the power went back on, we turned on the television and to our astonishment saw the tsunami wiping out everything in its path in the Natori City area.
My husband, who works on the fourth floor of my building, rushed to the daycare and called me right away to let me know our kids were safe. After receiving permission from my boss, I grabbed my things and bolted down the stairs to the daycare. Our kids ran to me crying and all I could do for them was stay strong and say, “Everything is OK.”
The scene on the first floor of our government building, as well as on the streets of Sendai, was of chaos. Snow was falling and everything was white. There was no power, so I gathered the kids and rushed toward the bus stop, but all the buses were not letting any passengers on. After a while we started walking toward the station, and was thinking I could easily get a taxi. There were no taxis, however. Instead, there were huge traffic jams and people just walking on the streets because sidewalks were blocked off due to fallen concrete, tiles and glass from the buildings. By the time we got home, just like my office, everything was on the floor — telephone, microwave, coffee maker, toaster, dresser, bookshelf and about 90 percent of our dishes and cups.
It would be three days before we got the power back, and that’s when I first saw the images of the destruction in our prefecture. I had no idea how bad it was. My husband told me that towns were wiped out, but I couldn’t really imagine it, so when I saw the news I was left speechless. However, my kids had no interest in seeing any of those images, so the entire week I was at home with the kids, we watched kids shows.
The first six days after the earthquake occurred only brought stress, grief and worry all at once. The daycare had not resumed, so I was with the kids the entire time. Aftershocks continued throughout the day, and I had to always prepare myself mentally to evacuate to the local school if need be.
The elevator wasn’t working, so we had to walk up and down eight flights of stairs. We walked to our nearest supermarket, only to wait in line for two hours to buy five items. We had enough food to last us a week, but not knowing what could happen in the near future, everyone including myself was buying as much food as we could. Since we were without power and the streets were abandoned, I walked past convenience stores thinking people might be looting, but everyone lined up in a neat and orderly manner, talking to total strangers saying, “Everything will be OK. We will get through this.”
More than three weeks have passed and aftershocks continue — some very small, others that registered at a magnitude 6.5, enough to make your heart stop for a second or two. For the first time on March 30, I left the office to see Sendai Airport and the Natori City area (just south of Sendai). There was a large ship in the middle of a rice field, cars piled on top of each other or on top of houses, piles and piles of destroyed homes, electric poles that had fallen over and the entire first floor of the airport was completely destroyed.
I also went to the temporary morgue set up inside the old Sendai Airport Bowl and watched body after body brought in by the Japan Self Defense Force. Looking at the faces, I couldn’t imagine how much they suffered, and you just end up feeling guilty for living. However, I think about both my friend Taylor Anderson, who lost her life in Ishinomaki City, and a business acquaintance. Every time I saw them, they were happy, smiling and living their lives to the fullest. Especially when I imagine both of them smiling, all I can do is think to myself “I must live on. I must do whatever I can to help restore my prefecture. This is my home. This is their home.”
To date, there are still approximately 65,000 people living in evacuation centers, more than 7,000 confirmed dead and more than 6,300 missing in Miyagi Prefecture alone, the most out of all areas affected by the earthquake. The actual damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami is still being assessed, but just from that short outing, it’s clear that everything can’t just be cleaned in a year.
Clean-up is important, but mental care for the evacuees — those who actually witnessed the destructive tsunami, those who lost loved ones, staff who are working around the clock and their families, and many, many others in Miyagi Prefecture, but also in all affected areas of northeastern Japan — will be just as important.
What I learned from this particular disaster was to be prepared. Be prepared at all times with all the proper equipment and food/water stock. We always hear the phrase “the big one will come any day now,” but do not take any action to prepare our homes, our family and friends for the actual big one. One day goes by without an earthquake, so we tend to think “getting together an emergency backpack can wait.” With the recent events, my other piece of advice would be to prepare not only for earthquakes, but also tsunami. The major destruction and the lives taken were mainly due to the tsunami. Miyagi Prefecture was always preparing itself for a major earthquake due at any minute. However, with the tsunami that followed, we would never have expected this kind of destruction.
Finally, I would like to end with a statement by John V. Roos, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to Japan during his visit to Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture. This nicely sums up the character of the Miyagi Prefecture citizens. “Nature — it can destroy precious human life, it can destroy property, but it cannot destroy the human spirit, and today here I’ve witnessed the best of humanity.”
Takeno (Chiyo) Suzuki, a former Nichi Bei Times intern spanning four years, previously served as the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival co-chair. She currently serves as a coordinator for international relations (CIR) for the Miyagi Prefectural Government. In addition to translating and interpreting, Suzuki has worked on various projects to attract overseas investment, promote Miyagi products in the United States and corresponding with Delaware, Miyagi’s sister-state. Born in San Francisco, Suzuki currently lives in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan with her husband, Yukimasa and two children, Kota and Yuta.