I had just returned home with our friend Megumi from L.A., who is visiting with us for a week. We had decided that Friday night dinner our family would take her for her first night back in Japan to one of our favorite local restaurants that is sort of a child-friendly food court. The first few seconds of the earthquake did not feel very different from others in recent past up here, but as it continued we knew it was bigger than usual, and so we called Megumi and the kids from the other room. Owen and Annie immediately got under the dining room table (excellent training they receive in Japanese schools here!), and the other two followed suit. It was LONG. Shortly after that, the loud sirens began, warning of a possible tsunami on the way. In some areas it was blaring the approximate time it was expected to come: 5:40 (about twenty minutes or so after the earthquake).
In our current temporary home, we are on a cliff that overlooks an area devastated by the 2011 tsunami. We feel high enough to be safe, and this home is really sturdy. Our best bet was to stay put. We were very thankful that our whole family was together, and it was good to have Megumi with us. But as the sirens continued, there was a palpable fear in the air. One of our daughters in particular was pretty freaked out, and just needed to be held.
Our phones were not working for the first hour or so, but we were thankfully able to text and get on the internet. So thankful for Facebook! That is the best vehicle for communicating our situation to a wide audience of family, friends and coworkers in times of emergency.
We heard back from a number of our local friends that they were headed to evacuation centers or in their cars headed to the hills. I was able to get through on the phone to one of our Nozomi friends, Chi. When I called her voice sounded panicked. Her husband was working at the time at the local nuclear power factory, so she had loaded her kids and new poodle in the car to go up the mountain. I have written about her before… they have built a new home where their former washed-away home had been; it is a great home but it is close to the water. She had a lot of anxiety about moving back, and so I thought of her right away when the sirens went off.
She said her knees were shaking as they drove up. Then they hit a major traffic jam as the rest of the Watanoha community also headed to the hills, so when I called they were stuck in their car. We talked a bit and then I prayed for her. She said her heart was calmed.
A one-meter tsunami did come to some areas, but there was no damage and no deaths. Very thankful for that! The warning was called off, and the loud speakers across Ishinomaki announced that it was safe to return home.
A large part of the past few days have been spent in processing that night. It has definitely been the main theme of conversations. Last night I was in a store and the storekeeper told me how the local residents all came to their place because they have the tallest building in the neighborhood. She said that just as they were beginning to forget the horrors of 3/11/11, this came and brought fresh reminders and fresh pain. One missionary friend, new to the area, shared how the reality hit her when the sirens went off that there really wasn’t time to take care of others- her main thought was how to make sure her children were safe. One of the families we work with had to evacuate by walking up the mountain near them to the temple. Their children panicked as the sirens blared and ended up going ahead while the parents were trying to gather a few supplies in the house. A good friend who also works at Nozomi had a fever for several days after – just from the stress.
For many of our friends, it did reopen some of the healing wounds. I think this was a wake-up call for those of us who have moved here and did not experience the big tsunami. I confess I have thought that a lot of people who died had made unwise choices to try and drive when the tsunami warnings went off. I realized on Friday night how everyone in the area becomes victims to the timing and where they happen to be at the time. For those already in their cars; those who live in low-lying areas — there may not be good options.
One of the common advice given to us the past few days has been — keep your children close. Several days before the big earthquake and tsunami a year ago March, there had been a similarly-sized earthquake that had shook the region. We talked with one neighbor who showed us a retaining wall hat had fallen down in that quake, just three days before the 9.0. No one remembers that now, because it was insignificant compared to the one that came several days later. But many have been talking about how two often come together like this – one a precursor to a larger one. There have been articles written about another very large earthquake due to hit northern Japan that would create an equally massive tsunami in this region.
We have a fairly complete earthquake/tsunami survival kit. We have talked with our kids about our plans. If we are in our new home, it will be less clear. It is definitely in “the zone”, but our hope is that it is a strong enough home and has a good second floor where we could stay if necessary (the previous tsunami came up about 3-5 feet in that area). There is also the nearby elementary school where we could evacuate if necessary.
But the bottom line is — we have no idea. We really don’t know. We need to be responsible with how we prepare for the worse, but continue to entrust our family and our friends into God’s care. And walk through the valley of the shadow with our friends. More than ever, I am aware of the deep sense of fear that lies all around us. One woman said this week, “The scab that was covering my heart has just been ripped off.”
There is only One who can conquer such deep, raw emotion – He is the One of Perfect Love. I decided over the weekend that if it were not for Jesus I could never ever live up here. Not because of our fear of another big one, but because mere rebuilding of homes or creating jobs is not enough. Thankful that He is something much more.