Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Living through Japan's largest earthquake, a nuclear crisis and evacuating my home--what a week!!

It is almost 2 in the morning and I am writing this--I have two kids wide awake and I wish they would go to sleep!! Oh, how I love jet lag. Anyways, this post is more for me to journal what we have gone through in the last 10 days. It is an experience I wouldn't trade, but has been the most stressful experience of my life.

March 11, 2011 is a day I will never forget. Started out like any old Friday. Eric had been out to sea for the last 3 weeks and was coming home the next day. The kids and I were working on cleaning the house. That afternoon, my friend Kristian came over and we were helping her bake cakes and cupcakes for a party she was having. Living in Japan for the last 1 1/2 years, we are no strangers to earthquakes. In fact, most of the time I don't even feel them. My mom had called me that morning to see if I was okay after the one we had earlier in the week. I told her, "Mom, don't ever worry, we have earthquakes ALL the time and I never feel them." Well, I was soon to eat my words. At 2:46 pm my house started shaking, Kristian and I looked at each other and were like, we are having an earthquake and then it kept shaking and shaking. My blinds were banging against the windows, things were falling off the fridge and counters, we were really rocking. If you are facebook friends with me, I put up a couple of crazy videos shot from people on base. One of them was of the pool on base and you can see how much we are shaking and then see the cascade of water going down the stairs--it is crazy. Anyways, the earthquake seemed to last forever. When it was over, I had this feeling of "that was awesome" because I had no idea of the devastation. The next thing I worried about was if we were going to hit with a tsunami. We live about 2 blocks from the ocean. Granted we live in a bay, but we are pretty close to the ocean. The base put us on a tsunami watch and told everyone to go to the second deck (Navy lingo for 2nd floor). We have one big hill on base and there were hundreds of cars up there waiting to see what would happen. Well, nothing did happen.

Saturday, was probably the most normal day that we had. The kids and I met friends at the playground--of course all you could talk about was what happened and how things were going to change in Japan. It was interesting talking to friends and hearing everyone's stories. We had friends that got trapped in Tokyo with no way to get home. The trains stopped running. Everyone had a story. Anyways, Eric's flight got cancelled, but luckily he was able to take a later flight and got home late that night. It took him forever to get home because of the limited train services.

Sunday, we went to church as usual. The city of Yokosuka seemed a little quieter than usual. During church we got rocked by about 4 aftershocks. It is funny, in Japan, the cell phones go off a couple of minutes before an earthquake to give you a warning. So in church, everyone's phones started alarming and letting you know we were going to have an earthquake. Sunday also started the beginning of LOTS of rumors. Everyone seemed to have a theory of what was going to happen and the nuclear crisis at Fukushima was just starting. I heard, don't go outside if it rains, it will be acid rain, you heard, that wasn't the big earthquake, prepare for another one, etc.

Monday, I went to the grocery store and it was complete madness. The shelves were empty and people were buying whatever they could. I saw a friend that lives in Tokyo and she was saying that they had no food. I saw another japanese friend and she was buying food for her family out in town because they had no food. Everyone was worried, no one knew what was going to happen and there was a sense of panic on base. Out in town they were having rolling blackouts, meaning that power was out for at least 4 hours during the day, trains weren't running, there was not a lot of food, gas shortages, etc. On base we ran out of gas for 3 days and then when we got a shipment they were rationing it and letting people only get 5 gallons because they didn't know when our next shipment would come. Out in town there were lines of, no exaggeration, 100 cars to fill up at gas stations.

Tuesday morning I got a call from our good family friend, Karl. He asked me, "so have you heard any rumors around base?" I replied, "NO, tell me what is going on." He then proceeded to tell me that they had found large chunks of radioactive material on one of the ships on base and that Yokosuka was getting hit with low levels of radiation and I needed to keep the kids inside, shut off our vents and keep all doors and windows closed. Do you know how hard it is to keep 3 kids inside on a gorgeous sunny day?? But we couldn't go outside, because as Ethan put it, "there were bad things in the air." Tuesday also started the mass exodus of people. We were continuing to get rocked by aftershocks daily--most of them big enough that they were noticeable. People were already nervous and then add a radiation scare on top and families were leaving the base left and right and buying tickets to fly home. At first it didn't concern me and I felt like we were fine. However, the more people you saw leave, especially a lot of the senior leadership families on base, you got a little nervous. Also, everyone was constantly reading the news and trying to figure out what was going on with Fukushima--you were hearing worst case scenarios of what could happen, it was nerve-wracking.

Thursday started the waiting game. An order from D.C. came authorizing a voluntary evacuation. Everyone thought this meant that planes were on their way to pick us up and take us out of there. It just meant that you could leave if you wanted. Anyways, you just kept waiting for news that something was going to happen. Nothing ever came--we still had people leaving left and right, blackouts were occurring all over, everything was so on edge. The base was also telling everyone to be prepared. Pack a bag, have emergency paperwork filled out, document all of your household belongings, just in case you had to leave and never come back. It is so hard to pack, not knowing how long you will be away, if you will ever see your things again, and I knew I had to be able to carry all of our luggage and push the kids in the stroller. My space was a little limited. Friday again, was spent waiting. It seemed like all of my friends were buying tickets and getting out. I began to wonder, should I leave or not. I was faced with one of the hardest decisions. Do you risk staying and having something possibly happen to your children (have them exposed to radiation) or do you spend 5,000 to fly home, leave your husband and possibly have nothing happen. Compound that with all of your friends leaving--it was so hard to decide what to do. Also, there was still the possibility that the Navy might evacuate us and fly us home for free. Finally Saturday afternoon, the D.C. finally released the funds to pay to get the family members to a "safe haven." I was lucky and Eric's office was very on top of things and we had tickets to fly home on Sunday night. A lot of my friends weren't so lucky. Some of them are just barely flying home now. Anyways, Saturday was spent frantically tying up all my loose ends--finishing packing (I had been pretty much packed for the last 3 days--not knowing when I was leaving). Sunday, we flew home. I have to admit, leaving Eric this time was in some ways harder than when he left for Iraq. When he left for Iraq I knew he would be gone for 8 months, I had been preparing for that day for 2 months, there were no unknowns. Saying good-bye this time, I didn't know when I would see him again, and still don't know, I didn't know what was going to happen to him--there had been talk of the radioactive plume hitting the base on Monday night. No one wants there husband to be exposed to tons of radiation!! Also, I was worried about traveling by myself for 24 hours with a 4, 2 1/2, and 11 month old. Luckily, my kids are amazing!! We flew from Tokyo to Chicago--an 11 hour flight and had probably only 20 minutes of crying. The flight attendants on board were very helpful and the kids were so good to sleep. From Chicago to St. Louis, again, they were great. People were so helpful all along the way--there are a lot of very nice people in the world!

It is nice being home with my parents here in St. Louis--we got in on Sunday night. The kids have not adjusted to jet lag well this time and have been up every night. I am exhausted, but am thinking I am going to have to drug them tomorrow night with benadryl and pray that it works!!
As of now, I don't know how long we will be here. I anticipate at least a month, but who knows. I hope it won't be too long, because I love Japan and want to go back. That is the other heart-breaking thing. We have LOVED living in Japan. It is a wonderful country with some of the nicest people you could ever meet. The japanese are the most gracious, helpful, kind people ever. All during this disaster they have amazed me with their order and the sense of calm that is here even during extreme crisis. If you can, please help Japan.

Anyways, this post doesn't even begin to describe the emotional roller coaster I have been on the last week and a half. I have learned so many valuable lessons from this experience and am grateful I have been able to go through it. I am glad that the Navy sent us home, even though I hate to be away from Eric. With things so uncertain, I just wouldn't want to take a chance that something would happen to the kids. The day after we left, the base passed out potassium iodide pills to everyone, just in case. If there is a possibility of me having to give my children medicine to prevent them from possibly getting cancer, than something is terribly wrong! Okay, like I said, I am extremely sleep deprived, so I hope all of this makes sense. I will continue to update on our ongoing saga. For now, we are refugees in St. Louis and enjoying this free vacation the Navy has sent us on!!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Halong Bay, Vietnam

The next part of our trip we went and visited Halong Bay, Vietnam (it is about 3 hours outside of south of Hanoi). We went and stayed overnight on a junk boat. Halong Bay was AMAZING!!! It was one of the most beautiful places we have ever been (that is probably why there are TONS of pictures). We had a blast--the boat was so nice and had the best food, we got massages and pedicures, and had tons of fun. They took us on two little side trips. The first one was to a floating village. It was so interesting to see people living out in the middle of the water. I was surprised at how many modern things they had. We saw a couple of floating houses with satellite t.v. They have a school there, etc. The village makes a ton of money off of tourism and the village is considered wealthy. The other place we went was to this giant cave--there also use to be tribes that lived in the caves. It was pretty amazing. Overall, this was one of the best parts of our trip!!