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Heber Resident "Jessica Henderson" Rides Out Japan Quake

The Event
I always used to watch the news footage of natural disasters with a feeling of impotence, nestled safely within Utah's mountains, far away from the actual scene of the tragedy. But today, sitting just 2 hours away from the epicenter of Japan's biggest earthquake, I find myself just as ineffective as ever.

The day has been a long string of surreality. I worked at the board of education--a guaranteed long, dull day of studying Japanese and trying to maintain a productive facade. When lunchtime finally rolled around I drove to a grocery store. In the few minutes it took me to select and pay for some snacks, the sky had filled with fat flakes and the roads were thick with slush. As I made my way back to the board, I came upon a mail delivery truck parked in the road. Japanese roads often don't have shoulders, so the cars will just pull over as far as possible (which isn't far), and put on their hazards. It happens all the time; I'm used to it. So I pulled into the opposite lane to pass the truck...and my wheels got caught in the slush, forcing me towards the sidewalk. I corrected, only mildly startled; but then my rear wheels hit a patch of ice and swung out around me, ploughing the nose of my car straight into the delivery truck's gas tank. I immediately jumped out and made profuse, bilingual apologies as the gas tank started leaking all over the road. I expected to endure rage and abuse from my victim (and frankly felt that I deserved it), but the driver calmly stepped over to the side of the road and began a barrage of phone calls to the police, fire station, my company, and the board of education. Then he wordlessly folded up a spare towel from his truck and laid it gently across my head, to shelter me from the driving snow.

Soon the area was flooded with people and my story was repeated several times, but never with the stern disapproval I expected. Everyone was sympathetic, no blame was placed, messes were tidied and reports were filed. Several co-workers flocked to the area, navigating the thick snow in high heels and business suits; and when all the work was finished they brought me back to the board and let me sit awhile with a hot cup of water.I had barely finished it when the alarms started.

Everyone's cell phones were suddenly going berserk, even the ones that had been set to silent mode. I flipped mine open and just had time to read the screen--"Earthquake"--before I felt the first rolling pitch. Earthquakes don't feel like I expected, or at least this one didn't. I expected shaking and rattling, the earth cracking at my feet and chunks of ceiling raining down. Instead I felt like the concrete had transformed into a restless ocean, heaving unexpectedly. It immediately made me feel sick to my stomach, like when you step off a treadmill too quickly and your body can't adjust to the sudden lack of movement--only I guess this was the reverse. Everyone took it pretty lightly at first. We're used to tiny quakes that last 2-3 seconds and do nothing worse than make us reconsider lunch. But this time the rolling lasted 2-3 minutes, and everyone quickly evacuated the building. We ended up evacuating several times, always lured back to the warmth of the building only to feel the ground reeling under our feet yet again--there were countless aftershocks. But we went inside long enough to turn on the news and saw that what was just a tremble for us was a devastating collapse for others. We saw the tsunami, the debris, the floating houses (some on fire). The waves of cars, tumbling over each other. The roaring oil refinery, burning like the pits of hell.

Sendai, Iwate, and Chiba. The areas that, for some reason, received the full fury of the earthquake and its resulting tsunami. The areas with reported death tolls mounting hourly, well into the hundreds by now. The areas that are all flame and debris. Areas within driving distance of me.

Despite all my traveling, I have not made all that many friends throughout Japan. My close ones are just that, emotionally AND physically: close enough that the downed phone lines are no obstacle when we check on each other. But through some quirk of fate--one of those twisted moments when reality reminds you how much it loves to mess around--I happen to have two close friends who are not within my reach.

Because they are in Sendai and Chiba.

Jessica's Blog is located Here.

BY JESSICA HENDERSON   03/13/2011



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