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Earthquake, tsunami hit home for some North Texans

03/11/2011 11:32 PM

03/18/2011 10:32 PM

William Tsutsui was about to get out of a bus in Tokyo when the bus began shaking.

The Dallas man looked around and saw people running out of buildings and nearby skyscrapers "swaying like trees in the wind."

"It was pretty scary," said Tsutsui, dean of the Dedman College at Southern Methodist University, who was part of a delegation visiting Japan. "I've lived in Japan before and I've been through my share of earthquakes. But this was nothing like I've ever seen before."

It was the biggest recorded earthquake in Japan, so deadly that it killed at least a thousand and unleashed a tsunami that reached throughout the Pacific basin.

In North Texas, Fumiko Coburn anxiously watched Japanese TV for updates, unable to reach her family living near Tokyo by phone or e-mail.

"I'm so shocked to see this kind of disaster," the 55-year-old Fort Worth woman said. "I have never seen this kind of really huge damage.

"I cannot do anything from here," she said. "It may not be my family or friends [in danger], but it's Japanese."

Hawaii impact

In Hawaii, about 40 members of the Burleson High School band were on the island of Oahu when the tsunami warning was issued, said Phil Beckman, a spokesman for the school district.

Officials have been in touch with the band director and school principal and were told that everyone is safe, Beckman said.

"I imagine the students are a little anxious," he said. "I know I would be."

Suzanne Foxworth also was nervous, because her 24-year-old daughter, Leigh Anne Evans, and son-in-law Aaron live in Hawaii where Aaron Evans is stationed at Hickam Air Force Base. Her daughter called about 2 a.m. Friday to tell her about the tsunami.

"I could hear sirens in the background," said Foxworth, a Watauga Middle School teacher, who exchanged text messages with her daughter throughout the night. "She was a little freaked out at first because all the locals started grabbing up all the water and gas. All the water was already gone at Walmart."

"The base is just telling them to stay put," she said. "I keep waiting to hear back to make sure they're OK."

'The not knowing'

Friday morning, Mark Berry of Dallas stopped making phone calls and started sending e-mails to people he knows in Sendai, Japan -- the most populated area near the epicenter of the earthquake. Hundreds of bodies were found near Sendai, according to news reports.

Dallas and Sendai are official "friendship" cities and share a student exchange program.

"My heart sank when I watched the video of the tsunami encroaching on the homes, just pushing things out of the way," said Berry, who heads the committee that sends local runners to Sendai every year for a half-marathon. "I can't imagine what they are going through. ... The silence is killing me, the not knowing."

Fort Worth Sister Cities officials finally reached officials in Nagaoka, one of Fort Worth's sister cities, receiving an e-mail that read: "The seismic intensity of Nagaoka was 4.0 while many areas had 6+. ... The vast area of Japan has terrible damages. Nagaoka is ok but we are still having after-shocks."

And in Southlake, officials also were trying to reach people in their sister city of Tome, Japan, which is expected to send students and chaperones to North Texas later this month for the annual student cultural exchange.

"We hope and pray for their safety," said Kiko Ekstrum, membership and program chair for Southlake Sister Cities.

Jesse Lackey of Aledo was just trying to make it to the Philippines on a mission trip to rebuild an orphanage. But the plane he was on was diverted to an Air Force Base in Japan after Narita International Airport in Tokyo closed.

"Landed and waited for fuel for long time," Lackey, 50, wrote in an e-mail to the Star-Telegram.

"They said they were going to let us off but there was [a] problem with security and customs. ... Very cramped after so many hours, inconvenient and uncomfortable to start with. But airline is doing what they can. ... We don't know what the exit strategy is yet."

Cultural ties

Both Southlake and Dallas have cultural ties with cities hit badly by the tremblor, Tome and Sendai, respectively.

And the Callisburg school district in Cooke County between Gainesville and Whitesboro operated a teacher exchange program with Kesennuma, a coastal city whose vital oyster beds were destroyed by a tsunami triggered by last year’s Chilean earthquake, and reportedly sustained much damage to buildings and homes Friday, said Tim Jones of Gainesville, a retired Callisburg teacher active in the exchanges.

Jennifer Wang, 24, of Southlake, said she was unable to call friends in Tome, 40 miles north of Sendai, where she spent a year teaching English in a sister-city exchange program.

"Most of what I get is through Facebook and it sounds like all of the American and Australian teachers are OK," Wang said. "The schools where they taught became shelters so they spent the night there. I heard from a couple of Japanese friends who said they were all right but there’s a lot of damage in the area."

More uncertainty

In Fort Worth, Japanese-born Atsuko Kosaka McCulley was up at 5:30 a.m. Friday to feed her 6-month-old daughter when she spotted hard-to-grasp tweets on her iPhone.

"I didn’t really understand but they indicated something bad had happened in Japan. so I opened the browser and read the news," she said.

Her city-reared father was in Oshu, a rural village just 60 miles north of Sendai, where he had reinvented himself as an organic farmer after a career in research and development for IBM in Tokyo.

"I have been trying to call my dad since morning but the calls didn't get through," McCulley said. He finally called her late Friday afternoon to say he was unhurt but without power and that his house suffered only minor damage.

McCulley reached a sister in the central Japanese city of Nagoya who said their mother was visiting her and was safe. A cousin's wife in Sendai, however, was unaccounted for.

"When something like this happens, it really strikes home how far away I am from my family and how hard it is."

Staff writers Alex Branch and Barry Shlachter contributed to this report.

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