Kumamoto Earthquake: I Just Want it to Stop

I've lived in Kumamoto Prefecture in Kamiamakusa City for 20 months now. It's a small island town located in the Ariake Sea between Kumamoto and Nagasaki Prefectures. It's a beautiful place to live.

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Ariake Sea Photo by Jemma Gallagher

On Thursday night, I was driving home from my weekly taiko group, and on the phone with my mom when the first earthquake alarm went off. I wasn't sure why my phone was flipping out, and although I recognized the characters that it displayed I didn't understand the meaning initially. Then my dad called to tell me that there'd been a big earthquake, and we stayed on the phone until I was safely parked outside of my house.

The first night of earthquakes was terrifying. I felt like I was on the outside of a bubble looking in while following all of the chaos on Facebook. My friends were being evacuated from their apartment buildings, roads were cracking, several people in Mashiki Town had died in a building collapse, and I couldn't do anything about it.

I was stuck, sitting in my own home experiencing aftershocks, and feeling very between worlds. It wasn't terrible where I was, by comparison to what I was seeing online, but it wasn't small enough that I could just fall asleep like nothing was happening. I spent most of the night texting or calling my friends in the states and my fellow teachers to assure them that I was okay and not in danger. Honestly though, I wasn't convinced myself.

I eventually fell asleep, knowing that I would likely have work in the morning. I took my regular Friday commute by boat to a smaller island located half way to Nagasaki Prefecture where I teach at an elementary school. I was picked up at the port on the other side, and the teacher driving asked me if I had been okay the night before. I told her that it was scary, but that everything was fine. My shelving hadn't fallen over, my electricity and water were still working, and life felt sort of normal again. She warned me to be careful because the aftershocks would continue throughout the day.

During second period, while teaching a class of fifth graders, we experienced a larger aftershock. My students are so well prepared for this type of event that they were halfway under the desks in the time that it took for me to even recognize what was happening. Luckily, the tremor only lasted a few seconds and we were able to resume class.

Temblors had occurred throughout the day. Only a few of them were big enough for me to feel as far from the epicenter as I am. I took the boat home, and immediately took a nap. I hadn't realized how drained and stressed the night before had really been. When I woke up, I went over to my neighbor's house. She's also an Assistant Language Teacher, but she had been stuck much closer to the epicenter at the time of the quake the previous night. She had stayed in an evacuation center with some other teachers, and was finally able to return home early on Friday morning.

We had a brief conversation about emergency preparedness, and I decided to walk to the store to buy some extra dry foods. In retrospect, the store was surprisingly empty. I bought some crackers and a few boxes of instant yakisoba. I had no interest in cooking. I returned to my neighbor's house with my goodies and hung out for a few hours. The company was nice, and felt very necessary after spending the previous night alone in my shaking house communicating with people on the other side of the planet who couldn't really do anything if things went south quickly.

I went home, checked in with my family, and watched a movie while I texted with another friend in Kyushu. My exhaustion reached a threshold, and it was time to pass out. I had put down my futon in the only room in my house without a tall dresser. I was not going to be the girl who got trapped under her own closet. I made sure my flashlight was close and went to sleep.

I was awoken at 1:26 a.m. by the big earthquake. I jumped up and turned my light on, only to have it shut off on me a few seconds later. I grabbed my phone and immediately got a text from my friend who I had texted with earlier.

"You okay?"

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If he had felt that one and knew to text me it must have been huge. I responded quickly that I was fine, got dressed in the dark with whatever was close, grabbed my backpack, which I had already packed with my passport, computer, water, crackers, and camera, picked up my flashlight and walked to my neighbor's house. She was huddled under her kitchen table looking at her cellphone. It had been a huge earthquake, and she was looking at the Japan Meteorological Agency's website, assessing how strong it had actually been.

"The map is blowing up," she said.

I moved around the furniture a bit, and we took the tall standing things off of her kitchen table (the blender, some bottles, anything that looked like it would hurt if it fell on you). Huddled under the table with her I took a moment to close my eyes and collect my thoughts. Centering myself was going to be essential to remaining calm. I could hear cars outside. After a few big aftershocks, we decided to go outside and see what people were doing. Then the tsunami warning came and we went across the street to the elementary school with our belongings. The power was still out but people's car headlights illuminated the parking lot at the top of the hill.

We sat outside of a dark gymnasium for about two hours, texting everyone we knew. Anyone who was close. Friends at home. One of the teachers from the elementary school who knew both my neighbor and me came over and checked in. Asked us if we were okay, and gave us a brief update in Japanese about what was happening. After the tsunami warning was lifted, we walked back down the hill to my neighbor's house. We cleared off her tallest bookshelf a bit, so that if it did fall the damage would be minimized. I went home after that and slept in my clothes. I realized that all of the clothes I had put on in the dark had a cat on them. Cat socks, cat shirt, cat sweatshirt. It was almost 4 a.m. by the time I finally got to sleep.

I spent Saturday morning feeling cloudy. I didn't have electricity, which under normal circumstances wouldn't be so terrible, but I just wanted to know how everyone was doing. Friends started posting pictures of the damage in Kumamoto City, and farther east closer to the epicenter. News articles started surfacing on my Facebook feed, and it all felt very foreign to my experience. The earthquake had registered at about a 6 where I live. I knew it had been strong. I still struggled to understand the extent of the damage. Friends who had posted pictures of the sidewalk in front of their apartment building the previous day had updated photos that showed huge rifts. Tiles had fallen off of roofs, cars were crushed, and there were cracks in the walls of city hall.

It felt like on one side of me everything had fallen apart, and on the other side people had no sense of how big it was. And I was still alone in my house. I couldn't just sit there, doing nothing and waiting for my power to come back on. I didn't have much water stored up, and not nearly enough food to last me if everything was going to be off. I got in my car and drove south down the islands. Only 20 minutes from my house the traffic lights were working, but the parking lot at the drugstore was overflowed and there was a line 10 cars deep at every gas station I passed. They were limiting everyone to 1,000 or 2,000 yen worth of gas and they had run out of regular.

I was living in Mad Max.

20 minutes past that everything was much more normal. The sun was shining, and the aftershocks were considerably weaker. No one was answering their phone though. It was literally like the earthquake hadn't happened. I just wanted to talk to someone and remember that I was going to be fine. I found a friend and had lunch. We talked about our latest boy problems, experiences traveling abroad, and we griped that we really shouldn't be eating so much ramen since it's probably terrible for our bodies but we had just experienced a major natural disaster and so we were entitled to a little indulgence. It gave me a few minutes of relief from checking my Facebook constantly.

After lunch I went to the drugstore and picked up some extra things, but the shelves had already been cleared of all of the bottled water. I drove back towards my house and stopped at another teacher's house. My neighbor was there and another friend. There was another big aftershock. Every time there's a big aftershock everyone's phone alarms this terrible siren and announces the earthquake. "Jishin desu. Jishin desu." Like I couldn't feel it.

Myself and two of the girls ended up at my house. There was a forecast for heavy rain and strong winds. Our city was put under an "evacuation prepared" warning. If the rain was heavy, we were at high risk for landslides. It felt like the tragedy would never end. At least my power had returned and we were able to enjoy a few laughs and watch some of the new season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

We waited for a long time for the rain to get stronger. The winds did pick up, but eventually we decided it was time for sleep. I woke up on Sunday morning almost surprised that we had made it through the night with no evacuations or major interruptions. It felt so good to finally sleep for a full seven hours.

My friends in Kumamoto City are returning to their apartments. Many of them are still without water or gas, but the electricity has been restored to a lot of homes. The pictures that they're posting are absolutely devastating. Their apartments are full of completely toppled belongings and incredible clutter. There are broken dishes, mashed televisions, and people sleeping in school gyms. Favorite places and fond memories have literally been leveled. I am feeling incredibly lucky to have had a comparably mild experience.

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Photos by Roland Carlos

Overall, I'm thinking that watching my newsfeed is both helpful and hurtful. I want to be connected and supportive of my friends who are struggling during this crisis. I realize that my own family and many of my friends are only seeing my experience, but I am seeing all of Kumamoto fall apart on the internet. I just want it to stop. It's incredible to me though that there is still so much love and support. Friends are offering shelter and essentials to anyone who can make it there. I wonder though if the bombardment of media visuals is having a negative effect on my ability to realize the hope.