Japanese students in Cape Girardeau worry about homeland

Sunday, March 13, 2011
Southeast Missouri State University student Katsunari Asano, who has family living in Sendai, on the northeast coast of Japan, talks about his reaction to the earthquake and tsunami there. (Kristin Eberts)

Katsunari Asano watched the devastation of his city play out on the Internet from the other side of the world.

Streaming video of crushed buildings, smashed cars, flooded streets, debris everywhere. He read the initial news accounts of the dead and injured, the numbers rising by the hour.

His hometown of Sendai, a city of about 1 million people on the northeast coast of Japan, was awash in destruction from the massive magnitude-8.9 earthquake off the coast and the subsequent tsunami it fueled.

"I couldn't believe it was happening. It was like a dream, a TV show," said Asano, a Southeast Missouri State University student in his first semester.

The tsunami unleashed by Japan's biggest recorded earthquake slammed into its eastern coast Friday, killing hundreds of people as it carried away ships, cars and homes, and triggered widespread fires that burned out of control.

Hours later, the waves washed ashore on Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast, where evacuations were ordered from California to Washington but little damage was reported. The entire Pacific was put on alert -- including coastal areas of South America, Canada and Alaska -- but waves were not as bad as expected.

Communications were down in much of the northern part of Japan following the quake. Asano said he felt fortunate -- his mother, who had escaped the tsunami with other family members, e-mailed him immediately to say that the family was fine. Their home, however, 20 minutes from the ocean, may be another matter.

"Maybe my home is broken by the tsunami," the 21-year-old said Friday afternoon at Southeast's Towers residence hall. He was still waiting for word about the state of his family home, and about friends and neighbors he worried may not have heeded the tsunami warnings.

"Maybe it was too late for them," Asano said.

Southeast's enrollment rolls this semester include 56 students from Japan. Zahir Ahmed, Southeast's director of international programs and services, said the university had made contact with most of the students by Friday afternoon.

"Luckily, everyone has said their family is OK," he said. "Many of our students are from Tokyo, and the earthquake was north of Tokyo."

Southeast also has faculty members from Japan, but Ahmed did not have an exact count.

Ahmed was counting his good fortune Friday. He had arrived home Wednesday on a business trip to the Far East, spending three days in Tokyo on the last leg of his travels.

"I was thinking about staying longer because I hadn't been to Japan before, and I really wanted to stay a couple of days extra and take a look around," he said. "Now I'm relieved. That would have worried my wife and children a lot, and I don't know how long I would have been stuck there because all of the airports were closed."

Scientists said the quake ranked as the fifth largest in the world since 1900 and was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month.

A global investment banking group estimated overall losses of about $10 billion, and President Barack Obama pledged U.S. assistance following what he called a potentially "catastrophic" disaster.

Rie Tanaka, a junior at Southeast, said her friends and family in Tokyo were well Friday, but she was worried about a friend who lives near Sendai.

"I can't contact her. I'm worried about her," the psychology student said.

Soon after the quake hit, sirens blared in Hawaii, warning of a tsunami that swamped beaches and pushed waves into hotel lobbies on the Big Island. The West Coast pulled back from the shoreline, fearing the worst. Residents were warned to stay away from beaches. Fishermen in northern California took their vessels out to sea and safety.

Docks were ripped from harbors in California and Oregon, and at least five people watching the waves in Crescent City, Calif., were swept out to sea.

Jason Lindsey, science outreach educator with the Southeast Missourian's Hooked on Science, was in San Francisco for the National Science Teachers Association Conference. He said tsunami watches, then warnings, were issued Thursday night into Friday, and at 8:15 a.m. the tsunami sirens began to blare.

"It was kind of deceiving," he said. "I looked in the bay and it didn't look bad on the water, but it was big enough to flip over boats."

At one point, Lindsey said, he looked out and saw surfers riding the tsunami waves beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

For now, in the aftermath of the damage, with powerful aftershocks anticipated, all Asano and Tanaka can do is wait, and hope. It's a helpless feeling, they say.

"It's so sad," Asano said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



Pertinent address:

Sendai, Japan

Map of pertinent addresses

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: