After the Quake: An Interview With Bradley York

by Kyle Byron

 

Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how you came to be living in Japan before the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear crisis?

I’m a 34 year old American, living in Koriyama City, Fukushima Prefecture. I’ve lived in the prefecture for the last ten years, having been placed there via the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme as a language instructor shortly after graduating from Ohio University. I’m currently employed by the Koriyama City Board of Education as an elementary school English instructor.

 

Where were you when the quake hit?

I was finishing the day at one of my schools. The schedule had been shortened that day in preparation for the following week’s graduation ceremony for the outgoing 6th graders. As such, more than half of the school had gone home by about 2:30 pm.

At 2:45 the school nutritionist (they have those at elementary schools in Japan!) was sitting across from me in the school staffroom. She reached for her mobile phone as an alarm sounded from it and said, “Jishin!” (earthquake). It was rare for a mobile phone alarm to alert us to an earthquake, so it took us about five or ten seconds to make our way to the doorway, and subsequently out into the schoolyard. By this time, about 30 seconds into the quake, it became difficult to even stand up. The school gym building, about 50 meters away, was thundering and clattering very loudly as the glass started to break and fall away.

Children in classrooms on the ground floor began to spill out onto the playground, but others in rooms on the second and third floors would have been crouching under desks at this point. Crouching out in the open air myself now, I told children to sit down, rather than run further away, and tried to keep some of them warm as cold wind and snow hit us all abruptly. This lasted another four minutes, which seemed like a lifetime. More and more children made their way out and onto the playground, where the teachers made efforts to account for all their students.

Mobile phone networks were nearly non-functional at this point, but I was able to get data on my iPhone and find the epicenter of the quake and news about the severity of the situation in our region. Koriyama lies 80 kilometers or so inland, but we wondered if there would be a tsunami and just hoped for the best for those along the coast. We began jogging through still-rumbling classrooms, shutting off any kerosene heaters still active and, back outside, focused on accounting for children and occasionally remarked at collapsed walls or rooftops we could see surrounding the school. We were all very worried about our own homes and families and friends. I remained another three hours or so, then made my way home by bicycle.

Whole chunks of buildings had fallen and the streets were cracked in many places, but people were still moving around in cars as normally as possible. I returned to my apartment to find dishes broken, shelves and their contents collapsed and walls cracked, but with no apparent structural damage, I felt “safe.” Gas and water were not working, but electricity was still available and my fiber-optic line was functional, so Internet access was possible. I soon decided to stay about two kilometers away from my apartment with my girlfriend and her family, where the situation was a little better.

tsunami damage
photo: Bradley York

 

The nuclear situation must have been unbelievable to you at this point. How did you cope?

I spent the next three days following the quake, pretty much watching my hair fall out from stress as I tried to decipher all the new information about radiation and whether it was necessary to evacuate, being 75 kilometers west of the reactors. In my city, as in others around Fukushima prefecture, gasoline supplies were cut off and the gas in our cars was all that remained. Grocery stores were closed and convenience stores had limited supplies and often closed within an hour or so of opening each morning. As friends and co-workers began to leave their homes or evacuation centers where they had been staying, I felt more and more pressure to evacuate myself, but managed to stay put until I had enough information to feel safe staying in my town.

As far as volunteering is concerned—here’s what I was able to do: a few days after the quake, I finally went out to see what I could do to help around my town. Here’s a Facebook entry from that day:

Cycled around my town today. Lots of quick road repairs being done. Retrofitting of highway overpasses, etc. Roads largely traffic free due to the gas shortage, so it was easy to cycle.

I visited a couple of my schools where local evacuees have resided for a week now. School with a damaged gym had evacuees residing in classrooms. Fairly depressing scene.

Other school has a nice, new gym where roughly 20 families lined the walls on gym mats and donated bedding. These were mostly local families, so I knew the kids. I was just in time for a delivery of tonjiru soup from local volunteers and spent the next 3 or so hours serving food and playing with the kids in the gym.

(Photos—Facebook account required)

I realized the only thing I really had to offer was myself as a kids play-partner for a couple hours. A day or so later, my co-worker managed to get some gas for his car and we drove east to the coast to an area where we would sometimes go camping in the summer. There was a nursing home and attached hospital where we would park near the beach, so we thought we would check on that and see if there was anything we could do. As luck would have it, we met a couple staff members of the hospital upon arrival.

 

There were reports that some evac centers were requiring radiation screening certificates. Did you experience anything like this?

Radiation screening was available 24 hours at a few locations throughout Koriyama and a number of my friends got tested voluntarily with no significant levels detected. As far as evac centers requiring it, I can’t say I heard anything about that, but would think it very unlikely.

They had managed to secure the one hospital vehicle that hadn’t been swept away by the tsunami and another small vehicle of a co-worker and were preparing to make their first trip to the Iwaki city velodrome. The velodrome is where the Japan Self-Defense Force had set up supply stockpiles and were distributing the relief goods that were coming into the city from there. This was a full week after the initial quake and there were a considerable amount of supplies, but seemingly very few people were able to retrieve them at the velodrome. This was also the first day that gas had been sold in limited quantities around the area with sales limited to about ten liters. We filled our three vehicles with the goods that had been allotted us and made our way back to unload at the hospital. (Photos—Facebook account required)

aid workers
photo: Bradley York

Apparently, one staff member had died at the hospital, but everyone else survived. No car or bus outside was spared, with some strewn about in the rice fields about 600 meters away. Still others were above us, turned every which way in the nearby trees. The damage to the buildings was mostly limited to the first floor, but nothing was undamaged.

We exchanged business cards with hospital staff, offering any help we could give in the near future, and continued into the city proper, where we met the director of a Christian church who has been coordinating distribution of donations that were being received privately. I can see that up until that point, at least, he seemed a lot more successful in getting relief out to those who needed it. He had nothing for us to distribute at that time, having completely depleted what was available to that point.

We again offered our continued help in the future and made the 70 kilometer trip back to Koriyama. The next day we waited the one to two hours at a local gas station to fill our gas tank half full in case there was something we might be able to do. This process would repeat itself over the coming days.

Kyle Byron is a writer and musician working on new online gaming technologies. He doubles on trumpet and flugel in the hippest jazz combo you've never heard of.

Comments

Enjoyed reading the first hand account!  I especially enjoyed the part of really just being human, asserting that the kids needed to play and go on with their day despite the tragedy…to have something to look forward to.  I also enjoyed reading about the human spirit to help others in time of need- I really believe this about humans, that it is our default to help each other and be of service to those in need.  Thanks for sharing this story!  :)

2011-04-12 by Lisa G.

The whole earthquake/tsunami/nuclear situation has been so horrible, and the photos shown here in the USA so ominous, but it is these first hand accounts of what someone experienced that really hit home and make you feel like you are part of what is going on.  I work in a school and the thought of all the small children having to experience that terror breaks my heart.  Thank you for your account and bless you; be safe.

2011-04-17 by Robin Starr

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