The lives of those in Japan and abroad were shaken last week as a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck 130 kilometers (231 miles) east of Japan’s northeastern coast. Minutes later the earthquake resulted in a tsunami with waves up to 10 meters (33 feet) high, which devastated parts of Japan and flooded surrounding towns and farmland as far as 10 kilometers (six miles) inland.
The earthquake was initially reported at an 8.9 magnitude by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and was recently updated to a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, making it the fourth largest earthquake in the world to take place since 1900.
While the earthquake struck Japan on Friday, March 11 at 2:46 p.m. local time, the Whittier community discovered the news Thursday night, around 9:46 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.
“My Facebook news feed blew up the day it happened and [continued] since then because so many of my friends out there have gotten on Facebook,” alumnus Elliot Burr ‘08 said.
Burr studied abroad in Japan in Fall 2006 at Obirin University in Machida near Tokyo. He has since kept in touch with Japanese friends through Facebook.
“They’re fine, despite the intermittent blackouts and lack of food in supermarkets,” Burr said. “Since March 11, I’ve received a handful of overseas updates including pictures of minor quake damage in their homes. Aftershocks apparently continue.”
This semester, there were no Whittier College students studying abroad in Japan, but efforts were made by Whittier College staff to get in touch with alumni and friends currently living or staying in Japan. According to Vice President of Advancement Elizabeth Power Robison, there are about 35 Whittier alumni in Japan as well as a current Board of Trustee member and a former trustee.
“We have been in contact with some alumni and friends in Japan and they are not in areas near the earthquake or tsunami,” President Sharon Herzberger said.
Herzberger posted on her blog (whittierpresident.wordpress.com) Friday, March 11, asking Whittier alumni, student parents and others in Japan to let the college know they were okay. Among those contacted was Whittier College trustee Yuki Hayashi who reported that his family, including daughter and Whittier alumna Makiko Osato ‘10, were fine.
“We have a very good tsunami alarming system at every small town by the sea but I am sorry that we lost many lives,” Hayashi said. “You can imagine why, because it was unexpected huge earthquake.”
Since Wednesday, the official death toll in Japan is 3,676, but CBS news reported that number is expected to rise above 10,000 with nearly 8,000 people still missing. An estimated 434,000 people have been displaced from their homes and currently live in shelters, some which are reported to be overwhelmed.
“It is difficult to rescue all the people because the range of [the] earthquake is so wide—like from Los Angeles to San Francisco,” Hayashi said. “We appreciate having many international rescue offers from 100 countries including big help by U.S. troops.”
In addition to damages to harbors, power plants and transportation systems throughout northeastern Japan, power and water supplies have impacted other parts of Japan. Scheduled blackouts have taken place and public transportation has been limited in an effort to adapt to damages and conserve power.
Among several alumni contacted for this article, Masa Yamaoka ‘09 from Kobe, Japan reported that he was far from where the earthquake took place and not seriously impacted by damage.
“The earthquake and tsunami hit the northern part of Japan probably a few thousand kilometers away from where I live so I can’t tell you much about what’s going on,” Yamaoka said. “But it did refresh memories of the past earthquake I was in and how powerful natural disasters can be.”
Having lived in Tokyo for three years before leaving for California at eleven-years-old, the events in Japan impacted senior Benjamin Cordier at a personal level. Cordier stayed up late last Thursday with his housemate watching YouTube videos of the earthquake and tsunami, including live footage of water overtaking cars and motorcycles and the destruction of cities and farmland.
“After the initial shock, the first thing I did was send messages to my friends asking if they and their families were okay,” Cordier said. “Luckily they were. The only scary part had been that their father was stuck in a high rise during the earthquake, but he made it out unscathed.”
With its geographic position on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan is one of several locations where large numbers of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions take place. According to the USGS, 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes happen here. With Japan’s history of frequent earthquakes, news outlets such as National Public Radio, attribute Japan’s earthquake preparedness with saving thousands of lives despite their losses.
The Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) also reported that Japanese in affected regions mostly resided in structures designed to be resistant to shaking.
“It’s definitely one of the most shocking natural events in recent memory and it’s not really about the scale of the destruction or the loss of life, although they are obviously shocking in their own right,” Cordier said.
“The scale has already been witnessed in recent memory with Haiti and Sumatra. The real shock comes from the damage done to one of the most developed nations on Earth.”
However, adding to earthquake and tsunami damages, Japan also recently declared state of emergencies for failures of nuclear power plants in Fukushima, resulting in evacuations of nearby residents and a worldwide concern for radiation.
“We also have to face the nuclear power plants problem, too,” Hayashi said. “This [could result] in a big energy issue in the world. I hope we can control it soon.”
Tsunami warnings were initially reported for Guam, Hawaii, Marshall Islands, Philippines, China, Australia and Thailand following the earthquake in Japan.
Crescent City, Calif. experienced damage in its harbor from eight-foot swells that is expected to be worth tens of millions of dollars.