Crossroads residents in Japan and Hawaii share earthquake, tsunami experiences

March 11, 2011 at 7:01 p.m.
Updated March 10, 2011 at 9:11 p.m.

"The whole building started to sway. I could see a tree outside swaying back and forth, too. There were bicyclists riding by on a sidewalk near the school, and I could see them struggling to stay upright, and then just giving up and jumping off their bicycles. Books and plants and anything small and moveable that was on top of furniture began falling. I ran to a doorway and braced myself against it, and I thought, 'If this shaking gets any stronger, this building is going to fall down.'"

Several hours after enduring the most powerful earthquake in Japan's recorded history, Sara Martinez shared her experience via e-mail.

The 26-year-old graduate of Memorial High School was teaching her last English class of the day in a city roughly halfway between Tokyo and Sendai, a city near the quake's epicenter.

"There was a fairly large earthquake here on Wednesday, so at first we all assumed that it was just another aftershock of that one," she wrote. "But then it just grew stronger and stronger."

After a minute-and-a-half of shaking, Martinez and her junior high students evacuated from the third story of an old building, she said.

"We all ran downstairs as fast as we could and gathered in the schoolyard. The aftershocks began almost immediately, some of them very strong. Many of the students were weeping, so we focused on calming and comforting them," she wrote.

Martinez's TV was shattered in the quake, but she said the city in which she has lived for almost a year fared pretty well in the quake that killed hundreds and threatened Hawaii and the U.S. west coast with tsunamis.

"When I got home, I was so relieved to discover that I could use the Internet and that my computer survived. I immediately got online and starting sending out messages to people back home to let them know I was OK."

From Victoria, Sara's mother, Barbara Martinez, watched her daughter and a few friends endure the aftershocks of the 8.9-magnitude earthquake via Skype.

"At one point they said, 'Oh no, that was a strong one,'" her mother recalled from their Skype conversation. "She said her apartment was a mess because everything had fallen off shelves."

Meanwhile, every half-hour, Dr. Yusuke Yahagi was calling his family in Kawasaki-shi, which is near Tokyo.

"Everything's shut down," Yahagi said. "I couldn't talk to my relatives, but we communicated with e-mail, finally."

The Victoria doctor, who used to live in Japan, said the region is used to frequent earthquakes, and most people are trained to respond appropriately.

"Most of the buildings are very earthquake-approved," Yahagi said. "But when it comes to 8.9 (magnitude), there's not much you can do to fight that."

Yahagi said his mother, brother, sister-in-law and two nephews were safe Friday afternoon, but they'll be dealing with interrupted transportation, failed electricity and aftershocks.

"At this time, it's just finding out about what's going to happen and worrying about the aftermath," Yahagi said.

While the events in Japan unfolded, Nancy Bennett slept in Victoria.

She awoke to a phone call from her daughter in Hawaii at 2 a.m.

"'The sirens went off for a tsunami,'" she said her daughter, Devon Bennett, told her.

It was about 10 p.m. there, and Devon, 19, was evacuating her 13th-floor dorm room at Hawaii Pacific University, which is about a block away from Waikiki Beach.

"At 10, the sirens went off, and that is when we got a little scared," Devon said in an e-mail after being evacuated.

Devon's dance team coach took her and at least three other students to higher ground inland, which is not considered to be in the island's danger zone, Bennett said.

"The car ride over took so long because everyone was out trying to get to or moving to higher ground," the college freshman said in the e-mail. "I live in the biggest tourist area, so lots of tourists were running back to their hotels."

Bennett, who works in creative services at the Advocate, said she hadn't slept since that phone call and was consistently trying to reach her daughter amidst downed phone service.

"Actually, the scariest part (was) not being able to contact someone from home," Devon wrote. "I felt really safe because I was with my team, but I can't imagine what students (who) don't have that type of connection were feeling."

By Friday morning in Hawaii, Devon had caught a few hours of sleep and was on her way back to the dorm.

"Although not much happened, I'm really glad we took these precautions," she wrote.

Quite contrary to most other accounts, Pam Jones, who lives in Mountain View on the island of Hawaii, said she's been inundated with phone calls instead of waves.

"I didn't know anything about the earthquake in Japan until I started getting calls from the mainland, and I got calls all night long," said Jones, who lives on the eastern side of the island with her husband, Victoria-native Ralph Grueneberg.

Jones said several roads were closed due to debris and sand, and she'd even heard reports of the waves moving some cars. But for the most part, she and her husband were unaffected.

"Here on the east side of the big island... we had a 4.6 earthquake at 10:58 p.m. That kind of got my attention," she said. "The only thing that we've encountered up here has been the earthquake."

"We are blessed beyond measure," Jones added.

Despite the scary situation, Sara Martinez said she'd lucked out, too.

"This morning, things in my town seem to be OK. Now we've just got to start cleaning things up," she wrote. "As one of my friends said, 'After experiencing that, I think I can survive anything.'"



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