Two devastating earthquakes rocked the earth this spring ̶ a 6.3 quake on Feb. 22 shook Christchurch, New Zealand, and on March 11, a 8.9 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan triggering a tsunami. Five Linfield College students studying in Japan and New Zealand give firsthand accounts of the disasters.
Lucian Battaglia ’11, studying at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, sat in his first-floor resident dining room finishing homework with a friend when the room began to shake. “I stood up not knowing what else to do. My friend proceeded to get under the dining table and I joined him,” said Battaglia. “This was a grade five to six earthquake. The dorm received a power outage that lasted just over 12 hours.” Battaglia and his friends walked to a department store to watch the news.
Battaglia witnessed aftershocks and food shortages. “Nuclear waste was by far the biggest concern, but not nearly the whole picture. The transport system and railways were moving at quarter frequencies at best, making it near impossible to get anywhere in a timely fashion.”
As the aftershocks lessened, Battaglia was amazed by volunteer efforts. “Everybody seemed to be pitching in,” he said. “At every major train station one could find people raising money for the tsunami victims. The Japanese people did a great job of bringing relief and refuge.”
“I knew that people were putting their lives on the line to save others. I did not have the will to leave that sort of compassion and return to America. Even before the earthquake I had made up my mind. I wanted to stay in Japan, even if that means being a victim of the next earthquake. I want to be close by so that I can help if the opportunity presents itself.”
Ariel Lillico ’12 studied at the Aoyama Gakuin University near Tokyo, and was brushing her teeth when the earthquake started. “I suddenly started having trouble standing up straight,” she recalled. “It wasn’t until later that I realized it had been an earthquake. The RAs made sure everyone was alright and people gathered in the halls but at that point we didn’t really have any idea of how much damage had actually been caused.”
Social networking sites provided a connection for Lillico and others. “I was on Facebook right away to reassure friends and family that I was alright,” she said. “It was fortunate that I had been at home and that we never lost power despite most of the surrounding area having blacked outs.”
Directly after the earthquake all the trains in Tokyo and the surrounding area were stopped and large amounts of the city lost power. This resulted in huge amounts of people stranded. Most people were just trying to get home after being stuck on the trains or at work or school.
“I found my way to the one convenience store in the area that was still open to find most of the shelves emptied but people still calmly picking which of the remaining snacks and drinks they wanted and waiting in a single file line to check out. That incredible calmness left a huge impression on me. I heard stories later of people walking for hours to get home or staying with people they had met that evening. For days after the quake the shelves of super markets and convenience stores were bare. It was pretty much impossible to find bread and other packaged or instant foods. To conserve power, Aoyama Gakuin University closed one month early.
Leah Sedy ’11, studying at Doshisha University in Kyoto, was relatively unaffected by the quake. “I was glued to a live online newsfeed when I heard about the tsunami, and all I could do was stare at the live images of muddy waves swallowing farmland,” said Sedy.
Even though she was relatively safe in Kyoto, just being in the same country where the disaster unfolded was cause for unease. “I was upset for the victims, unsure of what would happen next concerning the nuclear power plants, saddened by having to suddenly say goodbye to fellow exchange student friends who returned to their home countries, and waiting for the call that would decide whether I would be sent home or not.
“For most people in the Kansai area, life went on as usual. When it was on the news that the government was giving out bottled water for babies near the Fukushima nuclear plants, bottled water disappeared from the shelves here for a few days, but other than that the Japanese I have observed were very calm.
Many churches are gathering supplies to distribute to churches in the Tohoku area. “If my pastor—quietly putting in long, stressful hours on top of his regular job to help as many in the affected area as he can—is an example of what other Japanese are doing, I think there is great hope for this country.”
As Amelia O’Connor ’13 waited for her class to begin at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, she had no warning her world was about to be shaken – literally. Students scrambled under desks as a 6.3 magnitude earthquake violently shook the lecture room from side to side.
“The situation was definitely way worse than I ever thought it would have been from my experience in the classroom,” said O’Connor. “Many people around me were sobbing, angry and scared.”
Amid the turmoil, O’Connor made an effort to reach out to friends and family. “I managed to get two texts out to confirm my friends were okay and then all the cell services went out,” said O’Connor, who made an attempt to reach a friend’s house to stay with her and her family after hours she arrived. “We watched the missing and death toll increase exponentially overnight.”
O’Connor joined the UC Student Volunteer Army and helped clean up yards, houses and gardens. “Besides missing buildings, brick and liquefaction piles, and a lot of road work along the streets, Christchurch seems to be at a new normal,” she said. “This has given me a lot of perspective on both the vulnerabilities and strengths of society. I was impressed by how people can pull together and work through such an event, and do so without question.”
Elizabeth Stenger ’12, also studying at the University of Canterbury, was in her flat preparing lunch when the earthquake struck. She and other students gathered in an open field as college administrators surveyed damage. She said the scariest part was receiving the first reports that people had been not only hurt, but had died.
“When the quake hit all power and internet was cut off so we only had word of mouth and very limited phone connection. The night of the quake we had extra people sleeping in our flat because it had been deemed safe. We weren’t going to turn people away from a safe place to sleep when they were scared. The next morning we learned all international students were encouraged to evacuate. One of my flatmates was from Canada, so we set off together to take the evacuation flight to Wellington. On the way to the Red Cross location we had passed all sorts of fences falling down and cracks in the street, but we knew that this was minor compared to the city centre. The process of actually leaving Christchurch took the entire day, but we made it. I decided to transfer to the University of Waikato in Hamilton.”