Experiencing the 2011 Earthquake in Japan
The desk vibrated beneath his pencil, causing a graphite streak to smudge Noah Briscoe’s algebra assignment.
He glanced up, noticing that the teacher had paused her lecture.
“Earthquake,” murmured one of his classmates. Peers glanced at one another, filled with nervous excitement. Although common in Japan, earthquakes still caused some stir. They meant of few seconds of unexpected diversion in the middle of class.
Noah glanced at the clock, wanting to document the time the shaking began. It would make for interesting conversation with his family tonight at dinner.
2:46 p.m., March 11, 2011
The hands counted five seconds, then ten. Noah shifted.
Generally, earthquakes in Japan lasted no longer than fifteen seconds. Most of them were far shorter.
The book on the shelves lining the classroom began to clatter. The lights in the ceiling swayed. Something tumbled from the teacher’s desk, smashing onto the floor.
“Under the desks,” ordered the teacher.
Students climbed beneath their tables, huddling together as the lights flickered. Noah froze, adrenaline flooding his bloodstream.
“Noah. Under the tables, now!”
The panicked voice shook him from a daze and Noah realized he stood beside his desk, the classroom disintegrating around him. Panels fell from the ceiling. Books fell from the shelves. Noah fell to his knees and scrambled beneath the desk with his peers.
From his curled position on the floor, he could see the trees seizing outside the window.
He could no longer see the clock face, which now lay shattered on the floor, but its second hand counted two minutes since the earthquake began.
From somewhere amidst the growing chaos, the teacher shouted the order of evacuation. Timidly, students crawled from their makeshift shelters and stumbled towards the exterior door of the classroom. They passed through the doorframe and out into the open courtyard where the plants trembled, seeming to share the students’ fear.
“Do you think this is going to make the news?” Noah asked no one in particular
“Locally, at least,” responded one of his classmates. “There has to be at least an alert banner on the screen.”
Noah wondered if his family throughout Tokyo could feel the quaking.
Unknown to Noah, his mother Joann Briscoe stood in the library of his school, the American School in Japan, her daughter Hannah by her side. Her son Matteo sat a few feet outside the library door, buried in a book.
As the ground began to tremble, Hannah grabbed her mother’s arm. Students and teachers in the library froze and silently counted the seconds that passed.
The lights flickered and books slipped from their shelves. Teachers instructed students to get beneath tables. Hannah released her mother’s arm and hurried to climb under the one nearest to her. Joann rushed out the door and dragged Matteo from his book, jerking him towards the nearest exit.
Hannah crouched beneath the library table. A girl from her class pressed against her and squeezed her hand, crying in terror.
Hannah gazed at the students and teachers huddled beneath the desks. She wanted to close her eyes, but was too horrified to do anything but stare as the walls around her threatened to collapse.
Chloe Briscoe checked her phone as she returned to her apartment in Provo, Utah. Having spent the afternoon with friends, she hadn’t paid much attention to any notifications she’d received.
Missed Call – Dad
She redialed the number, which connected to the U.S. Embassy in Japan. The operator number rang. It rang again. After a few minutes with no answer, she hung up. That had never happened before.
Uneasy, she called the family’s home phone, but it would not ring. On the other end of the line answered the automated sing-songy voice of a woman speaking Japanese.
Anxiety flooded Chloe’s brain as she took a deep breath. They were probably just busy, she thought. Someone must have stepped away from the embassy operator’s desk for a few minutes. No one was home right now, it was a school day.
But the more she tried to ignore it, the more her intuition told her that something was off.
She entered her bedroom and sat on the floor next to the bed. She pulled her computer into her lap and opened Google, typing one simple term: Japan News.
Live reports and articles flashed over her screen of an earthquake. She clutched her phone and dialed her parents’ numbers over and over, but could not get through
Her hands shook with the realization of her worst fear becoming reality. Something had happened to her family while she was across the ocean, helpless and unaware of their situation. She dialed once again, her world suddenly moving in slow motion.
A few agonizing minutes later, Hannah pulled her iPod touch from her pocket, safe outside of ASIJ. A few moments prior, she had evacuated with her classmates and reunited with her brothers and mother between the goal posts of the football field. She eyed them as she clicked the power button on her iPod. The posts rocked precariously as the ground swelled.
The three curved lines in the corner of her screen glowed green, indicated that she still had a Wi-Fi connection. Immediately, she logged onto Facebook.
Chloe stared at the screen of her laptop back in Utah, attempting to gather information from news websites on the damage that had been done by the earthquake. As she rotated between dialing the embassy and her parents’ cell phones, the green online button appeared next to her sister Hannah’s name on Facebook.
She immediately opened a chat box.
Hannah reassured Chloe that she, their mother, and brothers were safe and about to head home from school.
After Hannah ended the conversation with a goodbye message, Chloe sat on the floor of her bedroom, filled with helplessness and an overwhelming sense of loneliness, and sobbed.
She clasped her hands and prayed desperately for the safety of her family, so far away from her in that moment.
Thirty minutes later, Joann, Hannah, Noah and Matteo climbed into their family van and headed for home. Aftershocks aggressively rocked the ground beneath them, causing their stomachs to jump with uneasiness.
On a normal day, the drive took them 45 minutes. This trip took nearly eight hours.
Japanese officials close down highways during earthquakes, in order to prevent accidents caused by potential structural damage. Drivers are forced to travel on the lower roadways.
With all the panicked drivers attempting to rush home, traffic stretched for miles. The Briscoe van crawled along in the mass of vehicles. At times, traffic stopped for thirty minutes and Joann would turn off the engine.
Individuals in yellow hard hats walked past the stopped vehicle, having determined that the better course of action was to walk home rather than wait in the congestion of traffic.
After a few hours, Hannah, tired and frustrated, decided that walking would be the best option in the circumstances. She joined the individuals passing in the faded yellow helmets, but continued for less than an hour before the anxiety from the constant aftershocks and the possibility of another earthquake outweighed her desire to hurry home. She decided she would prefer to be with her family in the security of the car and changed direction.
The van had not moved an inch.
Noah stared at his sister and the other walkers through the window. His stomach growled, but he barely noticed. His agitation levels rose as every hour passed. It didn’t seem as if all the precautions with the roadways were necessary, and he could only think of the security and comfort of home.
Matteo sat in the backseat, still silent with shock. He tried to comprehend the current situation. At eleven years old, this was the biggest ordeal he had been through in his life. He thought back to the sprint from the library with his mother and how the earth had wriggled beneath his feet, making it difficult for him to stay by her side. Every time a car passed, rumbling their van, his pulse accelerated.
In the midst of the chaos, Joann felt gratitude. That day, she had driven to the commissary to buy groceries for her family. She didn’t usually make the trip alone, as it was a long drive from their home. However, the trip had allowed her to pick up her kids from school early, which is why she had been at there when the earthquake began. She was safe, her children were safe, and the trunk of the car was full of food to sustain them during their journey home.
The Briscoes had left ASIJ at around 4:00 on the afternoon of March 11th. They arrived around 1:00 am on the morning of the 12th. The three siblings slept in the same room, too anxious to be alone with the aftershocks that periodically shook the walls throughout the night.
No one in Tokyo realized the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake until the following morning. News stations blared updates on the destruction caused near Tohoku, a few hours north, and the tsunami that followed.
At a magnitude of 9.1, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami had flattened cities, overturned cars, and killed almost 20,000 Japanese citizens.
The following days were packed with confusion. Rumors spread of fires and petrochemical plants destroyed a few cities away. The oil refinery in Tokyo had been damaged.
Most concerning, damage had been done to the nuclear power station in Fukushima.
With fear of potential nuclear radiation, the U.S. government ordered that all non-essential personnel be evacuated from the country.
A few days later, the siblings hugged their father goodbye and kissed their dog on the head before heading to the Tokyo airport with their mother, completely unsure of the future.
An unforeseen situation arose with documentation, and the family spent the night in a hotel nearby. None of them slept much. The aftershocks from the earthquake continued regularly, keeping each of them from drifting into the restful embrace of unconsciousness.
The evacuation flight to Taiwan the following day was worse than being on the ground. Turbulence shook the anxious passengers, jolting them in their seats. Noah squeezed his arm rests, his knuckles turning white as the plane windows rattled. His sister Hannah buried her face in Joann’s shoulder. His brother Matteo stared out the window, his eyes shiny and wide.
The family stayed at their relative’s home in Tennessee and reunited with their sister Chloe.
One month later, they were able to return to their home in Japan. Soon after, they found themselves on the streets of Ishinomaki dressed in neon yellow vests, gathering trash from the streets with a relief group. They shoveled gunk from the drains alongside the roads while overturned cars and splintered ruins of homes surrounding them.
Noah absorbed the wrecked remains of the city where the earthquake and tsunami had done the most damage. They passed a cemetery, where the crumpled remains of a car nestled between headstones. A ship rested in the center of a neighborhood. A single mass of shingled roof lay in a field.
He leaned his head against the bus window and closed his eyes. Emotions swirled in his chest. Empathy for the Japanese citizens who had lost their homes and had their lives taken. Sorrow for the men, women and children whose lives would be changed forever.
He felt a small sense of satisfaction that he could in some way help with the aftermath, although he wished there was more he could do than scoop trash from the gutters.
Additionally, his heart ached with gratitude. He and his family were safe with minimal damage done to their home and belongings. They had food, shelter, and their closest loved ones within reach.
When he returned home that evening, Noah Briscoe hugged his family and climbed into his bed, cocooning himself in his comforter.
For the first time in a long time, he descended into a deep, restful slumber.
The magnitude 9.0/9.1 earthquake first struck at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011 with the epicenter around 80 miles from Japan’s shore in the Pacific Ocean. The earthquake was felt as far as Russia, Taiwan, and China.
The quaking caused a tsunami that devastated some of the more coastal areas of Japan, and most notably damaged the Tohoku region, where the Briscoe family aided in cleanup.
It also damaged nuclear power plants near Tohoku, causing North Japan’s nuclear emergency. Thousands of individuals are still unable to return to their homes twenty years later because of the high levels of radiation.
The 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami constituted one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. Although Japan takes extreme precautions with earthquake protocol, more than 450,000 Japanese citizens became homeless. More than 20,000 individuals lost their lives.
Greg, the siblings’ father, was at work at the U.S. Embassy when the earthquake began. As soon as he was able, he called Chloe to let her know that the whole family was safe. He and their dog, Hadley, remained safely in Japan when the family was evacuated.
The Briscoe family lived in Japan for three years after the event, and will forever remember March 11, 2011 as one of the scariest days of their lives.