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Aftershocks keep Japan’s disaster survivors on edge

ISHINOMAKI, Japan (BP)–Things appeared to be getting better in Hirasuka Kiiko’s neighborhood on the outer edge of Japan’s tsunami disaster zone.

Cleanup crews hauled off mounds of debris blocking the entrance to her home. They even towed the pile of cars deposited in her driveway by the March 11 tsunami. Her children shoveled out the mud and muck left in the ground floor of her two-story house.

When electricity finally returned to her neighborhood April 7, Kiiko slept inside for the first time in a month. She’d been too scared to stay by herself in the dark, not to mention the threat of another earthquake. On her first night back home, she stayed on the second floor, “just in case another tsunami hits.” The water level reached more than halfway up the front door, so the top floor seemed safest.

The middle-aged Japanese woman couldn’t contain her excitement about the next day. Utility workers promised the community their water would be turned on. She went to bed dreaming about taking a hot bath and washing clothes, something she’s been unable to do since the earthquake and tsunami.

Then, at 11:36 p.m., a 7.6-magnitude aftershock rocked the area. A low rumble built to a dull roar. The shaking lasted less than two minutes but felt like eternity. Everything in Kiiko’s house moved straight up and down, a sign the quake’s epicenter was directly below the region.

An eery silence descended as more than 1 million people were, once again, without electricity. Kiiko picked up her thin futon mattress and the pile of blankets. She felt her way down the stairs in the dark and joined her neighbors outside in the cold. No one got much sleep as aftershocks continued to ripple through the area.

“It’s so scary,” Kiiko said, commiserating with her neighbors. More than 975 aftershocks have hit Japan in the past month, but this was the biggest so far. “It’s like we went back to zero. Just as everything’s starting to get back to normal, we get hit again — and the fears resurface.”

In the darkness, Kiiko relived the nightmare of March 11, the day she thought she would die. The 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit, knocking down utility poles and wires and carving cracks in her house. When the tsunami warning blared, she never dreamed it would come as far inland as her house. As the wall of water rushed toward her neighborhood, she jumped in the car to drive away.

The raging flood overtook her, however, and filled the car to her shoulders. Kiiko managed to open the door and escape, but wandered in waist-deep water for days. She rested on top of debris as snow fell around her. Finally, she found shelter at an evacuation center.

Even then, she felt cut off from the rest of the world; no supplies could get to the center due to the nuclear crisis. After four days, Kiiko found a banana to eat and split a grape juice box with two neighbors. When government relief supplies arrived at the shelter, the first offerings consisted mainly of instant noodles. Kiiko grabbed some and joined her neighbors heading back home, determined to be strong and rebuild.

When the sun rose April 8, Kiiko welcomed an end to the long night of aftershocks, but the disturbing images and emotions remained. She pushed away the horrible memories with thoughts of a food distribution that morning. Twice before, International Mission Board missionaries had brought food and supplies to her neighborhood. They promised to return that day with more.

Kiiko lined up in the parking lot of the local grocery store with more than a hundred others. The rank stench of spoiled food wafted from the store, but that didn’t deter the group from staking out their spot. Japanese government supplies are sent to the 150,000 citizens living in shelters, but those who can live in their homes are expected to fend for themselves, despite the fact that food, gas and kerosene are still in short supply, especially after big aftershocks like the one April 7.

The group waited for hours. The aftershocks closed roads and caused traffic jams. The missionaries were three hours late, but no one seemed to mind. That’s just the way life is now. Everyone was excited when the van arrived.

“You didn’t forget us,” Kiiko blurted out, jumping out of line and directing several men to unload supplies.

“I fear people are going to forget. We still need the help,” Kiiko said, acknowledging that it’s been a month since the triple disaster. “Please don’t let them forget Japan!”

Kiiko worked alongside the missionaries as the food was handed out. Eighty bags did not last long. Many who waited left empty-handed, yet no one got angry or fought for food. Someone rummaged in the van for anything else that could be handed out and emerged with a box of homemade cookies. Each remaining person got two cookies.

That’s when the missionaries noticed Kiiko, the woman who had assisted them, was empty-handed.

To show that she did receive something, Kiiko pulled a single homemade cookie out of her large cloth shopping bag. “Every little thing we get helps,” she said, explaining that she wanted to give away all of the food to her neighbors before helping herself.

“There has been so much bad luck that I wanted to give it away, so goodness would come back to me,” she explained, referring to her Buddhist beliefs of making merit. She opened her cookie, which had a Bible verse written on the paper wrapper.

Kiiko paused and read the verse. She touched the paper to her heart and reverently placed it in her pocket before turning to the missionaries and making them promise to return.

Kiiko admits she was interested in the desperately needed supplies, but she also said she feels some sense of peace and calmness — even when a small aftershock interrupted the conversation. It was hardly a major tremor compared to the others — “just” a 5.2-magnitude — but it was enough to make Kiiko catch her breath.

These days, Japan just won’t stop shaking — whether it’s the ground beneath Kiiko’s feet or her belief system. Japan’s world is slowly shifting.
Susie Rain is an IMB writer/editor living in Southeast Asia. The International Mission Board has established a relief fund for the Japan disaster. Donations may be sent to Office of Finance, International Mission Board, 3806 Monument Ave., Richmond, VA 23230. In the memo line write “Japan Response Fund.” Or you can give online by going to imb.org and clicking on the “Japan response” button. For further information, call the IMB toll-free at 1-800-999-3113.

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  • Susie Rain