I Felt the Earth Move: Surviving an Earthquake
by Jo Hatcher
Here is my story of life in Japan surrounding the time of the earthquake. I share this to give you an idea of what things were like. I am grateful to so many people in my life who care about me and have sent messages of concern and prayers and good thoughts. Thank you. My apologies for not responding to each one personally, but it has taken me all this time to gather my wits and make sense of my experiences. So here goes….
On March 9, I was lamenting not being able to celebrate my birthday the way I wanted …my job was intense that day. I was finishing up my rotation with the military in Japan with no hint that two days later I would experience one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded.
As I huddled inside the door frame that Friday afternoon, March 11, I tried not to panic. Stationed just outside of Tokyo, I had just walked up the outside steps to the 2nd floor of a building on base. Immediately I was met by four women who were startled and shivering. “It’s an earthquake!” they shouted. I responded to myself with, “It’s OK, Jo, everything will be all right.” But I was trembling with fear.
It took a second and then I felt the scary, unnatural sensation of the building rocking and shaking. I HATE EARTHQUAKES. They frighten me. I always think the worst is going to happen.
I tried comforting myself by recalling that the building was reinforced, that Japan has strong earthquakes all the time, that this one couldn’t be that bad. As the building shook more violently, I thought, Oh no, I don’t like this, I want to get out of here, I don’t want this to happen. I fought the strong impulse to run outside. But where? I could see tall trees and buildings, light poles, telephone poles but no open spaces. I felt confused and terrified and I didn’t exactly feel like waiting for the building to collapse down around me.
All of us squeezed under that door frame were trying to stay calm but I could see terror in everyone’s faces. I glanced out of the corner of my eye and saw light poles swaying back and forth like palm trees. The worried, freaked out part of me kept thinking, It’s all going to come down now and we’re all going to be under the rubble.
After a very long while which seemed like FOREVER, the shaking stopped. We dashed inside to determine by searching online how strong the EQ actually was. I still felt nervous and wanted to run SOMEWHERE. I wanted to get out of that building. And then I could feel shaking again.
As I looked out the window, I saw a different set of light poles swinging, swinging, swaying. I couldn’t tell whether my body was reacting in some weird way or whether it was an aftershock or still part of the big tremor.
Here a am just a few weeks prior to the earthquake, a carefree tourist in Kyoto. I was loving my time in this beautiful country. I was happy and at peace seeing all the beautiful temples and shrines.
After I got back to my hotel room, I turned on the TV and was stunned to find out I had experienced one of the worse earthquakes ever recorded. In disbelief, I watched the tsunami rolling over farmlands in Northern Japan in REAL time. My brain refused to compute what I was seeing…. cars and ships bobbing up and down like toys in a bathtub. A huge wall of water was making its way over huge tracks of farmlands. I forbade myself to think that there were people in those cars and on those ships. I made up a story in my head that no one was in them. It was too sickening to even consider.
A few hours later, I received a call that 11 planes had been diverted from Narita, Tokyo airport, to our base. Two of the planes were stranded and included 600 passengers. I was grateful to help in a small way that night while they bedded down with blankets, pillows, in a huge room to rest their already jet-lagged bodies.
What we were going through that night seemed so surreal :
hearing about the tsunami warnings, wondering about the destruction, and sitting with one woman who did not speak any English who was from Sendai, the worst hit place. She cried openly, not knowing where her family members were. Again, I felt sick and disoriented. For me, DOING SOMETHING, anything to help was soothing, even though it meant walking around all night just talking to the passengers and the volunteers.
I was scheduled to leave the base two days later and wondered if I would be able to get out. But it seems a phantom guardian angel had my back. On every step of my return I escaped the never-ending warnings that I would not make my flight. Things like: The entire Tokyo train system is shut down because of rolling blackouts.
And yet the bus successfully arrived at the airport 2½ hours later. Despite being warned that it would take hours to check my baggage, I checked in curbside in ten minutes. The attendant told me to hurry, that security was only open at certain times due to the blackouts. And yet after 30 minutes, I found myself at the gate, well past security and ahead of time for the flight. As I sat there waiting, I felt two big aftershocks. I talked to a Japanese woman with a baby. She and her husband paid an exorbitant price for their airline tickets, just to leave. We were all freaked out. And this was all before the nuclear reactors became really unstable. IT GOT WORSE after I left .
Once again, I remember my fabulous time in Japan and how beautiful it was to see the plum trees in blossoms only the week before. Was this all really happening?
I have never been so grateful to return home as I was that Monday. I was met at the airport by my husband whom I hadn’t seen since Dec. 28th. I was thrilled to see him, to feel safe, to see our home again.
Three days later, we were driving South to see our son Rob and his wife in San Diego. This was a day I dreaded, had tried not to think about and had at last arrived….Rob deploying to Afghanistan for 7 months.
At this point, I did what most people do when deploying, whether service members or family members back at home. I shelved all my emotions. I went numb. I didn’t allow myself to feel anything. I was in survival mode.
A few days later, less than two weeks after arriving home, I was called to a nearby base to help with the voluntary evacuation of military families coming from Japan. It was a compelling experience to be able to be on the other side of the whole ordeal. I pay huge tribute to these military service members, the civilians who work on base and the volunteers who prepared for every detail to take care of the family members as they stumbled off the planes from the flights from Japan. All were exhausted. Many worried but they were greeted with tremendous welcome, warmth, and compassion. This was the same phenomenon of graciousness I had experienced in Japan on base when the passengers were diverted after the earthquake. I was proud to be a small part of it.
There are so many heroes in the shadows. My deep respect goes to the staff at the Airman and Family Readiness Center who were working round the clock in Japan helping families from various bases in Japan leave. They worked with complete dedication for over two weeks straight, beginning with the diverted planes mentioned above.
And then, and then there were..the Japanese in Northern Japan who suffered immensely from the tsunamis and the radiation scares. Those workers in the nuclear reactors, working endlessly to make things safe….they are the heroes. And the Japanese people: there has been no looting, no stealing, only working together to rebuild, to find their loved ones, to assign themselves tasks to work as a unit. These Japanese are resolute; they are not defeated. Imagine for a moment what that would be like to loose your family, your home, your life as you knew it. This is what these people have faced.
As a therapist and coach, I know how our brains struggle to make sense of too much happening all at once in a short amount of time. I have observed myself oddly acting “normal”. I noticed that my first impulse was to clean, get my house back in order, to DO stuff that I used to do. I craved the familiar, to feel safe again.
I visited it the week before the earthquake and captured this lenticular cloud on top. To me it symbolizes peacefulness. And yet we know that a volcano can erupt at anytime.
WE CANNOT PREDICT WHAT WILL HAPPEN AND NOTHING STAYS THE SAME.
This is a time when the world seems crazy: earthquakes, radiation, tsunamis, people rioting and fighting for their rights, sons deploying to war zones. It’s over the top for all of us. As I work my way through my own experience, I recognize that I will be okay. That we shut down to preserve, to not have a melt down, we hit the circuit breaker in order to cope. And this is okay. It is normal.
For now, I am unemployed. I am rebuilding, too. I am in Mother Warrior zone for the next 7 months. I, too, will be resolute and I will handle it because I have no other choice.
These are some thoughts that came to me and keep me on track. I want to share with you.
1. Gratitude. When you think things can’t get any worse, just remember you’re still here. When you focus on what you have, the blessings and the goodness that you have in your life, fear subsides.
2. Fear. Talk back to it. Fear doesn’t really help anything. It gets me into trouble, thinking about what could have happened, what might happen.
3. Live Bold. Keep living, doing the things that mean something to you. Don’t forget that everything is changing, all the time, almost every way. Nothing stays the same.
4. Balance. Find the key between becoming insanely busy and too much time on your hands. For me, this is always a challenge. Listen to yourself and you will know when it’s time to have a rest and when it’s time to be active.
5. Flowers. Buy yourself flowers. Or grow them and then pick them from your garden. Flowers say you’re worth it. You can do this. You’re alright. It’s normal to shutdown, scream, loose things, think of the worst case scenario when you have big things going in your life.
6. Take notes from the Japanese and how they handle their tragedy. No looting, just working together, finding a solution, designating among themselves who will do what, committing to rebuilding. They are resolute people. They don’t give up hope. They keep going.
And so when life gives you more than you can seemingly handle, this is what you do.
Visit Jo’s website: www.JoHatcher.com