EDITOR'S NOTE: The Star-Telegram invited Jessica Fleming, a 26-year-old former Fort Worth resident, to write a first-person account of life in Japan after the deadly earthquake and tsunami. Fleming, a 2007 graduate of Texas Christian University, is staying with her fiance's family in Shiogama, about a 40-minute drive from her home in Sendai, a northeastern coastal city near the epicenter of the quake. Her fiance, Tomohiro Tsuzuki, works at a funeral home.
Here is Fleming's story, in her own words:
Like so many important historical events, the real importance of the event is only developed after the events unfold.
How were we to know when that shaking started in the lobby of our ninth-floor office that thousands of people would die in the aftermath, thousands more [would] be displaced, and even we lucky few be without electricity, clean running water, and food supplies for days to come? There was no way.
Like so many things in life, the trick to survival has more to do with adaptation and rolling with the punches than anything else.
Step one: Find your people
In the hours following the quake [on March 11], I walked the streets of downtown Sendai with a friend, looking for wreckage, and we were shocked to find little. A few buildings had new cracks in their faces and a few fences had fallen, but overall the city itself looked about the same as ever. The big difference was the lack of electricity, which turned this normally friendly little city into the potential set of a zombie apocalypse movie. The difference of course being that zombies are far easier to fight than hunger, a tsunami, or cold.
As the afternoon wore into evening, we realized that, despite the cold, we needed to go back downtown and I needed to find Tomo.
My cellphone battery had been at 100 percent that morning and now was down around half life due to how many times I had tried and failed to send e-mails and phone calls to friends and family on both sides of the Pacific. Nothing was working. ... Eventually a Japanese operator voice explained something in a prerecorded message that probably meant that lines were busy or down. ... My Japanese is still not that good.
Snow was falling as we cursed the cold and paced the streets, examining the license plates of every passing car for something familiar, but nothing came. ... There was a line to the street for the pay phone, which I later found out had been made free due to the catastrophe and lack of cellphone service. We didn't feel we had the time to wait.
We ... marveled at the darkness of the unlit streets. We could even see the stars, which was not a common occurrence in Sendai.
My battery was dying, but I had to try again. And again. And again.
Finally, just before 7 p.m., I heard a phone ringing. ... When Tomo picked up, I am sure I screamed in his ear, but I don't think he minded it.
We met in front of my building and hurried to the car. The drive home was strange in that the traffic was so thick but there was very little road rage. I think everyone was still too afraid for that. The traffic thinned as we left the city, and once we got to the highway, we were clear to move as we saw fit.
In the distance, Tagajo, the next town south from Shiogama, burned. The inferno that was some type of industrial complex reached higher than any flames I had ever seen in my life. The enormity of the earthquake was starting to hit home.
When we had entered the car, I asked about his family. Tomo explained that both of his parents and both of his living grandparents were at the house in Shiogama, safe and secure. Once we got home, I introduced myself using the first page of Japanese I had learned long ago at TCU, and then was introduced properly ... [to] Tomo's grandmother and aunt, both on his father's side. We came in and ate a small meal that I was happy to have, and bedded down for rest.
Step two: Endurance
Aftershocks had been hitting us since the event. In my friend's apartment, a few strong ones knocked us around. In the car on the way home, Tomo pulled to a stop and gripped my hand every once in a while as the road shook beneath us.
The worst of it was at home, though, where each shake precipitated a household call of "Jishin! Jishin!" which I learned quickly means earthquake in Japanese. With that, we all would pile into the entryway and grab the bags of emergency goods stashed there. We clamored to the door more times than I can count, only to realize, once our shoes were tied and we were ready to run, that the aftershock was over and we could all go back to bed.
I have long compared earthquakes to tornadoes because I have some experience with fearing, dreading and preparing for the latter and people here have done the same for the prior. Now I know why severe earthquakes are much worse. It isn't because the earth is shaking rather than the sky, or because it happens any time of year regardless of season or even that they are almost impossible to predict in enough time to provide actual assistance. It's the aftershocks, the tsunamis, and in this case the damage to the nuclear reactors in Fukushima. ...
On the morning of Saturday, March 19, we heard our cellphones in unison release sudden shrieks of alarm. This is the "early warning" system I have heard about, meant to give residents of Japan a few seconds to get under a desk or table before the big one hits. When the recent big one hit, this was useless to me because my cellphone was at my desk with the rest of my possessions and I was walking into the lobby from the classrooms, located on the other side of the office space from the desk where my phone sat screaming.
On Saturday morning, after the few seconds it took to recognize the sound and what it meant, we all scattered toward the exit, but again once we had our shoes on, it was over. We found out it was a 5.6 magnitude quake in Akita, a prefecture north of our current location in Miyagi. That one I did not even feel, as I was busy running to grab my laptop and get out.
I am used to tornado warnings and watches, in which case you usually have a little more than 15 seconds notice of the thing being in your area and you prepare to spend a night indoors, perhaps without power. The 15-second earthquake warning by comparison seems useless, as there is little time to do much other than hide under a table. ... In the case of the recent [magnitude 9] quake, it is possible that this early warning system saved some lives in Japan.
Step three: Adapt, adapt, adapt
In the evening following the event, I came to find that we had no cooking gas, no electricity, no running water, and little food. In addition, cellphone signals were still not getting out and my already dying battery went down a few more bars. I finally turned it off in hopes that I would be able to do something with it the next day. We laid down in the living room on beds of seat cushions beside a coffee table with a blanket over it to trap the body heat beneath -- a makeshift kotatsu, or heated Japanese table. No one changed clothes or removed their coats. We kept everything on for fear that an even bigger quake was coming for us.
Under a blanket draped over us by his mother, I held Tomohiro and prayed a silent prayer. I don't know how many times we rose panicking that night or the next, but I do know that the first night of full rest we all had was several days later.
The rhythm of life just takes a different pace in crises. Instead of waking at 7 a.m. for breakfast and then taking a nap before pushing myself into a suit and running for the next train, I'm waking at 7 a.m. to put away the cushions I sleep on and force Tomo from his slumber. Then he eats while I check my e-mail and help his mom prepare a meal for the rest of us, who are struggling into consciousness in the living room where the drawn curtains reveal blinding daylight.
Tomo prepares for work and leaves for the funeral home. I kiss him goodbye. ... Sometime later, a group of us will depart for the first of the day's adventures -- finding potable water at one of the ... distribution areas. Sometimes, we are lucky enough to get to the place before the rush of other people, all searching for enough water to keep their families going for a few more days. On one occasion, we came to line so late that after an hour of standing in the sun, we went home with empty containers. ...
On Saturday the 19th, we found so few people at the center that it seemed a clear admission of the fact that most people in the area had regained running water and we weren't going to be far behind. In walking through the mud, however, I stained the bottoms of my pant legs. Secretly, I rejoiced in finally having a decent excuse to remove the garments I had worn for a full week by then.
We also went by a few small greengrocers on the way, finding to our surprise that a few were still open, selling the last of whatever shipment came in recently. Many of these places limited certain things per customer -- only three oranges per customer, only two kiwis, etc. -- to ensure that the supply would last a bit longer. ... We checked out separately to ensure that we could get four kiwis instead of two; six oranges instead of three. ...
Now, on the floor of the kitchen, sorted roughly by size, sits a pile of apples. Just seeing them makes me smile and feel warm. We've got a bunch of apples. We're not going to starve.
After returning, I was allowed a few hours to chat with friends online and generally play with my computer -- which consisted primarily in checking bridal websites for different Japanese-themed invitations and bouquet ideas. I know these are not of the most dire importance right now, but I need the distraction, if only for a few minutes. Being able to focus on something so happy in our somewhat near future delights me, and I feel I can't help but do a little of it every day.
Once food and water are restored to normal availability levels, I will be more reasonable. Once the trains are working, I'll probably be at work. Until then, I am lucky enough to be bored, and the Internet is a wonderfully addictive cure.
My delighting in the world of bridal madness was short-lived, as the time came for us to go and retrieve not-potable water for the toilet. To my surprise, we wound up at a public fountain, where a few other people also stood with buckets and ice chests, ready to fill them from the ornamental spring. Tomo's mom heaved the water out in a pink plastic bucket as I held plastic bags open to catch the water. ...
Make no doubt about it, we are lucky.
Our house has stayed intact and the damage done by the earthquake is limited to 5 or 6 broken cups, having fallen in a full china cabinet, and a floor filled with CDs from broken shelves. Electricity and cellphone signals came back on Monday the 14th around 1 a.m. Internet and phone connections followed on Wednesday the 16th.
Water and food are being restocked as soon as we find them, and the danger of starvation or dehydration is at a minimal level. Running water is next on the list, and once Fukushima calms down, I have no doubt that shipments of fresh food and water will return to the area.
We did not drive through the area where the tsunami hit and took houses with it during our adventure that Saturday, partially just to keep our mental health in the positive spectrum. Even so, we saw the inch-thick caked mud on the ground; the broken windows and doors; the boarded-up, chained, or otherwise locked vacant buildings. The streets were littered with dirty, ruined furniture, still discolored from the black waves that stole away so much from so many.
Outside of a group of apartments, though, something positive seemed to be happening. Yes, the carpeting and furnishing from the lower level of apartments were on the street, but people were also moving in the new flooring and furnishings. Rebuilding has begun, and if anyone knows how to rebuild, it's this country and these people.
Later on the news, it was reported that crews are hoping to clear away much the debris from the tsunami by next Saturday, the 26th. While I find that to be somewhat ambitious, I would never think the task too daunting for the Japanese worker. This country is filled with people like Tomo, who will go to work without a shower or a full stomach but will work until their job is done and do it more efficiently than many others could do in their place.
The careful reader will probably notice that I have avoided discussing the nuclear issue that is unfolding in Fukushima. This is not because it is not a very important issue, especially for the people of Fukushima.
In my daily life in the aftermath of the quake and tsunami, however, the nuclear threat has been minimal and the only effect I have seen is increased nervousness on the parts of my friends in the states and terribly repetitive news reports.
We are more than 50 miles from the reactors, so I feel safe.
Even if we weren't, I doubt I could convince a household of seven strong-willed Japanese citizens to leave the house that has kept us safe through the other two disasters of the last week and a half. While I do not necessarily agree with the Japanese government's policies toward this event, I am also incapable of leaving these people who have treated me as one of their own even before these desperate times came to pass.
I am staying, and we're going to be OK.