Disaster in Japan: A Sister’s Personal Tale

Stephanie Vander Heyden, Beta Phi, recently graduated with a degree in Japanese from the University of Montana. She has been living in Takasaki, Japan, between Tokyo and Nagano, about 250 miles south of Sendai and teaching English at three elementary schools. The following is a first-person account of the earthquake in Japan on November 21.

All children take English as their foreign language, and it is mandatory curriculum even in elementary school. I was finishing my year as an English teacher when on November 21, 2016, at 2:40 p.m., a 7.4 earthquake hit Japan and created a life-changing event.

I was in the classroom when the earthquake hit, and I dove under my desk. (I’m a native of Seattle so I know you seek cover when the earth begins to shake.) The earthquake lasted three minutes and since I was located about 250 miles away from the epicenter, it really was not that strong. After the quake stopped I realized that everyone had left the building, so I joined everyone outside and was instructed to sit with the children while the teachers huddled together to form a plan.

The elementary children asked, “Stephanie-sensai, why are you not joining the teachers?” I replied, “Believe me when I tell you, they are speaking Japanese so fast, there is no way I could understand them!” Then to my surprise, all the teachers ran into the building. So I grabbed the teacher that spoke English the best and asked why they were running INTO the building and he replied, “Stephanie-san, you have one minute to run into that building, get your stuff and run out!” So I ran in, grabbed my purse that contained the key to my apartment and left the rest. The clock had stopped at 2:40 p.m.

Getting home was a real challenge as trains had stopped, and everyone grabbed a bus or taxi. Public transportation is so efficient and readily available in Japan, that very few people have cars. Since the taxis were all taken, I was finally able to track down a bus that was going my way. Even the buses, though, were running slow because all of the traffic lights were out.

I finally arrived at my apartment to find that it was still standing, probably due to the fact that it was made of cement. Our concern at that point was how we were going to get food since the grocery stores were all closed. My roommate, Liz, arrived home as well. We did not understand the full extent of the earthquake until we accessed the news. We had no idea that a tsunami had occurred and that there was flooding of rice fields, closing of airports, fires, and that the residents of Sendai and other communities were gone. We were pretty rattled at the extent of damage and magnitude of the quake.

Liz and I weathered out the night. It was tough with aftershocks every 30 minutes, some which were 6.0 in magnitude and closer to us than the original earthquake. We slept in our sweats prepared to go outside at a moment’s notice.