By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
It started like any other day, but before it was over March 11 would seem “like hell.”
“I feel the building shaking like dice being tossed by hand,” she said. “The blackboard, tables, chairs and papers are flying everywhere. I can’t recall how long it has been; it feels like a lifetime,” said Meiyu Tsai Ooyanagi.
Ooyanagi was at a retreat with the Miyagi International Association Translators when the earthquake first hit March 11 and witnessed the devastation first hand as she walked home.
“I saw many damaged cars, glass and many objects on the ground everywhere,” she said. “Traffic lights stopped working. It was a horrible scene.”
Her sister, Tan Tsai Chapman, a research associate and business manager with the Radvanyi Chair in International Security Studies at MSU, immediately thought of her sister when she heard about the earthquake in Japan.
Ooyanagi lives in Sendai, one of the cities that was hit the hardest by the recent earthquake and tsunami. She works as a translator and her husband, Hiroshi, owns a restaurant.
“At the time, I did not have a clear understanding on the level of severity,” Chapman said. With power outages across Japan, she was unable to contact her sister. Her mother, who lives in Taiwan, finally got in touch with Hiroshi at the family restaurant.
“He said he thought he was going to die that day,” Chapman said. “But the whole family was ok.”
That phone call cut out and it was days before they would hear anything from Meiyu or her family again.
“Of course, we imagined the worst,” Chapman explained. “But we could only wait. When the TV showed the horrible scenes, I had to turn it off.”
The quake was the largest in Japan’s recorded history at a magnitude of nearly 9.0. Although Japan has strict building codes in place to withstand high magnitude earthquakes, the damage in Sendai was extreme.
While her apartment building remained intact, many of her family’s belongings had been destroyed. There was no electricity, gas or water. Strong aftershocks rocked Sendai throughout the day and into the night. Ooyanagi and her neighbors were so afraid that they decided to camp out together in the lobby.
“In case anything happened, we could take care of each other,” she said. “We did not have much sleep, because we were worried about bigger aftershocks coming.”
Her building periodically has electricity and water but still no gas for cooking.
The first few days, they ate what didn’t require cooking, mostly canned food and crackers. Some stores have since reopened, but most have sold out of necessities, like food, water and batteries.
“Many people lined up before the stores opened,” Ooyanagi explained. “Often the goods were gone in the first hours. Many people cannot get what they need even though they have money.”
The tsunami did not reach Sendai, but costal villages outside the city have virtually disappeared. Thousands have been confirmed dead, and thousands more are still missing. Ooyanagi said the sous chef at their family restaurant lost his entire family when the tsunami hit the town of Fukushima.
“The Sendai mayor said that it will take at least two months to rebuild our city, but for those near the Pacific Ocean, three years rebuilding time is optimistic,” she said.
The nightmare is far from over in Japan. The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant suffered severe damage from the earthquake and Japan is working to prevent a meltdown. The government called for citizens to evacuate the surrounding area.
Although, Ooyanagi says the nuclear crisis is something she does “not have time to worry about.” Her biggest fears are the daily aftershocks, some as high as 6.0 magnitude, and the dwindling supplies. The shelters are growing desperate for food, water, batteries, clothing and blankets. They are depending on donations and aid from international charities, she said.
The American Red Cross has already pledged $10 million in aid to Japan.
“They’ve asked for financial assistance instead of volunteers, so they can provide medical aid and help with the overall recovery,” Megan Burkes, a development and communications officer for the local Red Cross explained.
The money donated will help buy the supplies and ensure that survivors are receiving the medical care they need.
“There is a very strong Red Cross Society in Japan and they have already seen a large number of people stepping up to volunteer,” Burkes said.
Several international charities, including the Red Cross, have posted links on their websites where people can donate to their efforts in Japan. For a list of highly rated charities that are accepting donations for Japan, visit www.CharityNavigator.org .