Sunday, March 13, 2011

Shaken, Not Stirred

            I was teaching English class on the second floor of the school when it all happened. At first, we all noticed the rumbling and didn’t think much of it because earthquakes happen so frequently here. But then it started gaining in intensity. Everyone stopped what they were doing, and you could see it in everyone’s faces as the realization hit that this wasn’t just another earthquake – this was a big one! The building started shaking like nothing I’d ever felt before. Everyone bolted for the stairs. We all ran to a small field right outside of the school and stood or sat there, feeling the earth shaking beneath our feet. A few of the younger students ran straight at me when we got to the field and they wrapped their arms around me, clutching my coat with all of their strength. I sat on the ground with them, holding them as tight as I could. So many scared faces could be seen in clusters all around me.
            As we were all sitting there, prayers could be heard in English and Japanese coming from small groups of students and teachers alike. I had my Bible out at one point and started reading Psalm 46 aloud. A few people came over to listen, including some of the Japanese kids who could only understand limited amounts of English.
            If I had to describe what the earthquake felt like, I’d say it reminded me of when I was little and I used to spin around in circles very fast in my living room and then plop to the floor. The ground beneath me would feel as though it were twisting and turning back and forth. It certainly doesn’t make you react the same way when it’s happening without you being dizzy.
            When the initial earthquake was over, which lasted a little over five minutes, we were told that where we were it had reached 7.8 on the Richter scale, and that the epicenter was at 8.9. Most of us rushed into the school to see if everything was okay. Some of us went to the third floor of the school where we keep all of our books and curriculums. They were strewn across the floor. Pieces of shelves lay there with nails sticking up dangerously. It was a mess. We all went back downstairs and I watched as the students tried to call their families and weren’t able to get through due to the lines being busy. I felt odd not calling anyone, because the only people close enough to me that could be in danger were all in that building. (Thank God my family was home in Virginia, safe and sound!)
            As I was in the building, the first aftershock hit. We all ran back outside to the field. The aftershock was long and intense, a lot like the earthquake. At one point, we could all smell a dangerous amount of gas. A couple of adults ran into the school and church to turn off the gas so the buildings wouldn’t explode. Lots of kids were crying, so a couple of the teachers and I were doing our best to comfort them. I was going from student to student until I was sure they were well enough that I could go to another person. There was one little boy in particular who was standing alone covering his face and shivering, so I ran up to him and wrapped my arms around him and held him tightly. After a long time, I could finally feel him relaxing.
            When the earthquake and aftershocks were happening, I didn’t find myself scared at all. I was more in awe than anything else. I kept thinking, “Whoa! My God made this!” I could really feel His power as He shook the earth! The lyrics to “I Lift Up My Eyes” kept running through my head as well: “He will not let your foot be moved. He who watches over you will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord Himself watches over you; He is your shade at your right hand. So the sun will not smite you by day, nor the moon by the night.”
            Parents began to show up at the school gradually and took their kids home. Those who were still at the school went into Honda Chapel next door because it was a very cold day going on an even colder evening. Everyone had cell phones, iPods, and laptops out to keep trying to get in contact with loved ones or to read articles and watch videos from the news. At one point most of us were crowded around one laptop and watched live footage of the tsunami and all the destruction it brought with it. We watched as a giant wall of water chased after cars that were desperately trying to escape on the roads. At one point it showed an aerial view of the water encircling a few cars that immediately stopped driving and just stayed there as the water closed in around them. The video feed ended just before it hit the cars. We all started praying right then and there and many of us were crying, including me. It really changes your perspective on things when you’re in such close proximity to a historical natural disaster as it unfolds. The footage we’ve been seeing has looked just like something out of a natural disaster movie. But this was really happening. Real people were dying and it was happening so close to where I was staying. And the chances of those people being Christians was so slim. We were all praying for them, that somehow God would have made Himself known to them in their last moments.
            I was able to pull my computer out and Skype with my family at one point. As I was talking to them and assuring them that I was okay, everyone in the chapel went crowding over to the windows. I looked out and saw a mound of fire shooting into the sky. An oil refinery just five and a half miles from the house I’m staying in had exploded. 100 foot high flames could be seen easily from the chapel. I was able to show my parents some of the flames as it was happening. I talked to one of my English students and he told me that he was counting when the explosion happened, and five seconds later the doors to the chapel slammed shut with the force of the explosion. I saw two other explosions after the first one come from the same refinery.

                We think this may have been the sun setting behind the fire
            Aftershocks just kept coming and we would all run out of the building if it were a particularly strong one. Those of us still there at the chapel were fed by some of the moms there who cooked up some rice and heated up whatever other food there was on-hand. We entertained the little ones so they would be distracted and not scared.
            After what felt like ages, I left the building with my host family and Jenna and Jessica. Jenna and I were spending the night at the house where Jessica is staying. We had been planning on having a movie night and shopping this weekend. That was the last thing on our minds then. We spent the entire night informing family and friends as they began to wake up in America that we were safe and sound, and also kept reading and watching the news. There were six of us in the house and each of us had our laptops out, spitting out facts and statistics whenever we’d find something new online or sharing pictures we’d find of the damage. One of our team members here had taken video footage of some disturbing cracks in the ground where he was working. You could see the ground moving as the cracks increased and decreased in size. The ground looked like it was breathing! His video was picked up by CNN, so some of you may have seen it.
            At 10:00ish, Jenna, Jessica, and I decided to try to go to bed. There were still frequent aftershocks, so we didn’t know if we’d be able to sleep or not. We were exhausted enough to try, though. As we were climbing into bed, we decided to read the Bible, pray, and just talk about some things that really impacted us that day. We all came to the agreement that it was the longest day of our lives. We started talking about some things that had happened earlier in the day prior to the earthquake, things that had bothered and irritated us. Those things seem so petty and insignificant to us now! We prayed for a long time after that. After shocks just kept coming, so I prayed, “Lord, could you please have these aftershocks stop soon? We’d really appreciate some sleep-“ and at that exact moment, a huge aftershock started, so I continued, “or, that works too!” We all started laughing so hard. (God really does have an interesting sense of humor!) I looked down at my watch at one point and saw that it was midnight. We all sighed in relief that the day was finally over. We fell asleep a little bit after that.
            At 4:30 in the morning, I was awoken and told that we were all going to go downstairs to the living room. There was a loud announcement we could hear, but we didn’t understand it because it was in Japanese. We decided to be safe and stay on the first floor just in case. It was freezing. We all bundled up in blankets and waited. An hour later, nothing had happened except more aftershocks, so we all went back upstairs to sleep.
            We slept until 8:15, then we got up and Skyped with our families. After that, I went to the grocery store to buy some things with the wife of the couple we were staying with. The lines at the store were ridiculously long. There was absolutely no bread or eggs on the shelves.
            I’m now back at my host family’s house. For those of you worried about the close proximity of this house to the oil refinery, things are just fine here! Just a few things fallen off of shelves and a little bit of broken glass. Aftershocks just keep coming. I’ve lost count of how many have happened just as I’ve been writing this. I was woken up a couple of times last night by some pretty intense aftershocks. We were listening to the news today and they’ve said that the 8.9 earthquake was actually a 9.0! After going over the seismic waves, they realized it was more intense.
            Today has been the warmest day we’ve had in a while. There are no clouds in the sky, but instead of a bright blue clear day, there’s this dark hue to the blue. The sky looks dirty. It’s a little scary. We’ve been warned that if it starts raining sometime and we get rained on, we need to wash ourselves off immediately because of toxins in the clouds. Please keep us in your prayers that we would all stay healthy and that we would not get affected by the toxins or radiation in the air. We’re far enough from the coast that we haven’t had any effects from the tsunami, thank God.
            Thank you to those of you who have written to me to see if I’m all right, to those who have called my family for updates on my safety, and to all of you who have been praying! I love each of you dearly, and I’m so glad you all are safe back home in America!


 1 God is our refuge and strength,
   an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
   and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
   and the mountains quake with their surging.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
   the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall;
   God will help her at break of day.
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
   he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD Almighty is with us;
   the God of Jacob is our fortress.
8 Come and see what the LORD has done,
   the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease
   to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
   he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
   I will be exalted among the nations,
   I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 The LORD Almighty is with us;
   the God of Jacob is our fortress.


  1. Loved reading this Melanie!!!! ...even though I was there with you for most of it. :)

  2. Melanie, thank you for posting this... It makes it much more real than just reading a news story. It makes me shiver to think about it. We're still praying for you! Love, Hannah