My husband and I and our daughter live in Ofunato, Japan. As you may or may not know, Ofunato was deeply affected by the earthquake and following tsunami on March 11, 2011. It was the most terrifying experience of our lives. Here is our story.
It was a normal day just like any other. Gabe, my husband, left for work and we parted with a kiss as usual, but a hurried one. Those with small children know how hectic mornings can be. Violet and I returned to our bed to have our morning nursing session and a quick snooze before leaving for a playgroup.
We went by bus and arrived back just in time for a nap. Violet fell asleep on the walk home and I laid her in our family bed. That day I decided not to nap with her because I wanted to put on a pot of beans for dinner. So I got up and cooked in the kitchen. Luckily my noisy cooking woke our sleeping angel from her nap earlier than usual. We were playing in the kitchen when the ground began to shake. We are used to earthquakes in Japan but still I picked up Violet and quickly turned off the gas stovetop. The shaking became more violent and showed no signs of relenting.
I panicked. I opened the front door and looked around. I tried to remain calm but my heart was pounding out of my chest. I decided that it was safer to go outside in case the house should collapse. We ran out without shoes or coats on and carefully made our way to a parking area of a nearby business. I saw many of my other neighbors gathered there. They held out their arms to me and Violet, whom had buried her head in my chest. She was screaming inconsolably and I began to cry as well.
The shaking was so violent that we all had trouble standing. The women formed a circle around me and Violet and surrounded us with their bent over bodies to protect us from any falling debris. Overhead an explosion occurred at the local power center. A collection of power line towers had been shaken so hard that it sparked and caused a fire. We could see the fire and hear the explosion as well. We all shouted out in fear and tucked our heads in as far as we could.
Finally after 5 minutes that seemed like hours, the shaking subsided. We released a communal sigh of relief and stood there in shock. Violet continued screaming and I was trying to comfort her in any way I could. She buried her head in my chest and reached for her milkies. The wind was blowing pretty strong and we didn’t have coats on or shoes. We were getting cold and I was ready to go back to my house.
To this day I don’t know why I thought it would be safe to return to my house. I should have known about the impending tsunami regardless as to whether or not I could understand the city wide announcement. I began to walk back to my house and just as I arrived at the front, a car drove up with a woman wearing a surgical mask driving it. I was in a state of shock and at first failed to recognize my friend of 8 years, Junko Mino. But that only lasted a second. I heard her voice and her words loud and clear. She said, “Stephanie, a very large Tsunami is coming. It probably won’t come up to your house but we should leave.”
I quickly went to my front door and grabbed shoes for Violet and myself and also thankfully, my diaper bag was by the door (though it only had 1 diaper in it). I am notorious for carrying a large bag which hardly ever closes because it is stuffed with so much stuff. I am one of those moms who always thinks well I should bring 2 extra sets of pants and at least 8 diapers. But on this day I had sized down. Only my wallet, one diaper, left over homemade baby food from lunch, a hat and my cell phone.
We made our way back to Junko’s car in probably less than a minute. I jumped in and we were on our way. She told me that she just happened to be driving by our neighborhood at the moment of the earthquake. I truly believe that she was there for a reason. An angel was sent to save us that day.
There are so many what-ifs that run through my mind on a daily basis. There are so many ways in which our story could have ended at that moment when the water left the ocean. But she was there and she saved us.
She asked me where I wanted to go and I said to please take us to Ofunato Hospital. That is one of the highest points in town and Gabe and I had discussed in the past that that would be our location of evacuation in case of a tsunami. I felt confident that he would find me there. I tried to call him on my cell phone but the lines were too busy. Finally I got through just before all of the cellphones in our area were knocked out completely. I got through and found out where he was, where he was going and told him where we were headed. He was only 15 minutes away ,at most, by car. But that did not account for all of the traffic or all of the people trying to get to safety.
Junko made a brief stop at her parents business to make sure they had fled to safety and then we were back on our way. I tried to reach her husband several times by cellphone but could never get through.
Finally we arrived at Ofunato Hospital and she drove away to be with her family. The aftershocks continued to come. I didn’t know where to go. Inside, the hospital was darker than usual. They were running on generators. The building was shaking but I figured it was safe to stay inside.
I waited and waited to meet my dear husband. As we waited I held my daughter close and did the only thing I knew would make her feel safe and calm her crying. I nursed her. I nursed her there in the middle of the foyer. They were setting up triage there and in the front walkway. I nursed her standing up in the middle of it all just trying to keep her and myself calm.
I met a former student of my husbands who was there with her 1 month old twin baby girls and also her mother. They were waiting to meet their husbands as well. The babies were sleeping peacefully. They tried to reassure me that Gabe was coming, that there was nothing that would keep him away from us. I waited and waited.
People started arriving with wet clothes and hair and it occurred to me that the wave had come. Someone else recognized me and asked me where Gabe was. I told them the last place I knew for sure he had been. The look on their face told me everything I didn’t want to hear. I began to cry.
The mother of the twins and her mother tried to console me and told me to be strong for my daughter. So I nursed her again, this time to calm myself down.
Another hour or so later I saw one of my neighbors running through the door. She ran up to me and said she had found Gabe and that he was there at the hospital. She told me to stay there and she would go get him.
Finally, I saw him. He was running through the door to us. I ran and Violet came off my breast and looked for her daddy. We embraced. It was the most beautiful embrace of my life. We were together again. He then told me that we lost everything. He had returned to the house to try and get our computer and hard drive but heard the water coming and so he ran up the hill away from the water and watched another house slam into ours and water rush over it. He said “It’s all gone.” I looked him straight in the eyes and said “I don’t care. I have you!”
We spent the night that night in the hospital gymnasium. Though it was March, the chill of winter was still in the air. They brought in blankets for us all to sleep under and on. We formed little groups that, though we didn’t realize right away, were clustered into neighborhoods.Our neighbors shared the snacks that they had brought and offered more blankets for our daughter.
The ground shook all night. The lights above us swayed. With every earthquake we considered evacuating the building until shaking became more normal than stillness. At that point we just huddled together and waited it out.
We had little food or water and no diapers. They were handing out adult diapers or feminine pads. I shoved pads into Violet’s diaper that was already soaked. She didn’t have any extra clothes so I had to use the wet diaper as a barrier between the pad and her only pair of pants.
The lights stayed on all night so it was hard to tell when the sun went down. Many people shared snack food with us and one person offered some baby food that they had. Another mother sitting with her 2 children and elderly parents looked over and offered a piece of raisin bread to Violet. She teared up as she handed it to me. She said her youngest was at nursery school that day and she was still waiting to be reunited with her. She gave us an extra blanket too. A few hours later we were blessed to watch that tearful and happy reunion.
In spite of all the food we were given Violet wouldn’t eat. She nursed though. She nursed all through the night. My husband went without food so that I could eat what little food we had to make milk.
We were asked to move to another location for the night but we heard from other refugees that the next place did not have any blankets left. So we stayed at the gym. My husband had an asthma attack and went to seek treatment in the hospital.
There were patients flown in from neighboring hospitals and nursing homes. Some of these patients had severe handicaps and were lying in stretchers. One man in particular shouted through the night. His voice sounded like a crying siren. To this day I can hear it when I think of that night. His voice was haunting and alone. I did not sleep and would not be able to for 42 hours. By midnight Violet had been awake for almost 12 hours. I knew she needed to sleep but was too afraid or nervous to do so.
I nursed her whenever and for however long she desired. It kept us both calm. It even seemed to make my husband calm just watching us do something so normal. Finally sometime late into the night, she slept. I lay there awake,cold and frightened.
At midnight someone from the city office came around recording the names of the people taking shelter there. I was thankful that he was someone I knew from my husband’s job. He knelt down beside me and gave a comforting smile as he looked down at my nursing Violet. I gave him our full names and address, though he knew our names, to follow with procedure. He smiled again and went on to the next person.
As I lay there nursing and holding our daughter on the cold hard floor and looking over at my husband finally able to sleep because he was given asthma medicine, I felt so blessed to be together when so many were still missing.
The lights stayed on and someone had a transistor radio running constantly to keep up with the news. We were expecting other waves. Someone came in and delivered a one page paper from the local newspaper. It had 2 photos of the damage and fires that were burning all over. It looked like the end of the world to me. I couldn’t believe the images before me were my town.
The news on the radio stopped and the DJ started playing classical music. It was very soothing. The last piece that was played before the broadcast ended for the night was “Brahmas Lullaby”. It sounded more beautiful to me than it ever had before. It was as if someone, some angel up above, was singing us all to sleep and we would all awake to find that this had all been a terrible nightmare.
The next morning we sat up and Violet nursed on and off. There was another little boy around her age there and he wanted to play with Violet. So the two of them ran around the gym and brought smiles to the faces of the elderly there.
It wasn’t long before people started trailing in looking for missing loved ones. some people were calm and just looked around and quietly left. Others walked around in a frenzy talking loudly to people asking frantically if anyone had seen their loved one. It was heartbreaking. Thankfully we did see a few joyful reunions.
Sometime late that morning a hospital staff member brought in bottled water and rice balls. Everyone was allowed one bottle of water and 1 rice ball. We gratefully took our portions and savored every bite. Everyone was very calm and orderly. No one rushed the box of food and water but instead waited to see who would finally go first and then gradually lined up one by one to receive their allotment. I was somewhat surprised to see everyone behaving so cordially and respectfully. But in a way, it seemed the natural way. We had been in Japan for so long that we new that typically Japanese people are always concerned about the group and people try to maintain order within that group.
The morning turned to afternoon and we were thankful to see that my husband’s bosses had come looking for us. We were greeted with hugs and smiles of relief. It was obvious that they had stayed at the office all night and that they didn’t sleep a wink.
My husband works in the city board of education which is located in city hall. I am certain that all the employees that night were working round the clock trying to organize relief efforts not to mention worrying about their own families and friends.
Our bosses informed us that all able people were being asked to move from the hospital gymnasium to the concert hall down the hill because injured people were being brought in from neighboring cities whose hospitals had been destroyed. So we went back to our spot in the gym and collected what little we had and joined the line up for the bus that was taking everyone down there. When we arrived it was sometime mid to late afternoon.
The building was opened in April of 2005 and as you can see from the picture above, it is made entirely of concrete. It is somewhat dark even when the lights are all on. On this day they were running as little as possible so it was more dark than usual.
We walked down to the bottom floor where they were having people stay. We searched around for a spot to call our own, not knowing how long we would be there. We found a little spot around a corner that was near a big glass window offering some light into the room.
There were no more blankets available. There were two small propane heaters not nearly large enough to heat a concrete space of that size. Everyone looked worried and unsure. I sat down on my husbands sports coat and started to nurse Violet. People smiled at us and commented how great it was that I was still nursing my toddler in such a time as this. I agreed that I was indeed thankful.
My husband went off to check on the food and water situation. There was slim to nothing available. The taps were running but at that time we weren’t sure if it was safe to drink the water. I looked at my husband and said “We have to get out of here.”
We didn’t have a car, we didn’t have any money and we couldn’t call anyone to come and get us. It was then that we decided to hitch to the nearby mountain town of Sumita where we had lived for 3 years before moving to Ofunato in 2005.
The woman who had rescued Violet and I from our house, Junko, and her husband, Mark and their boys live there. So we decided if we could get to Mark’s house we could contact our surrogate Japanese parents who lived in Tono (another mountain town about 1.5 hours inland from Ofunato). Gabe decided to walk around and see if he could find some cardboard and a marker to make a sign. I sat there on the cold floor nursing and rocking our daughter who kept asking repeatedly to go home or when we were going to go home.
A few moments later something amazing happened. Our friend Mark, whom we were trying to get to, rounded the corner searching every face looking for us. It took me a moment to realize it was him. He had grown his beard out and I was not really expecting to see him there. When I finally realized it was him, I broke the silence of the concrete room and shrieked out his name “MAAAAARK!!!!”. He looked over surprised and relieved to see us. He grabbed us tight and we sighed in relief. He gently asked if I knew where Gabe was and I told him he was there looking for things make a hitch hiking message to Sumita. He laughed and I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders.
The whole room was staring at us. We quickly reverted back to our Japanese manners and used our quiet voices. He told us that he would take us back to his house and we could stay with them for a while till we figured out what to do next.
We drove away in his car watching our destroyed town fade away in the rear view mirror. As I right this I still struggle to believe how blessed we were to get out of the shelter so quickly when others had to stay for months and months.
Once we were there we took a nap in a bed and Violet and I finally slept. It was amazing. Power was out in all the neighboring towns so we ate and visited by candle light and warmed around the propane heater. We felt much safer and we were so thankful for our friends.
The next day Mark went out to find a spot where his phone would work so he could contact our families and let them know we were o.k. After someone posted on Facebook that we were alive our Japanese parents, the Yoshida’s, found out where we were and surprised us at Mark’s front door. They took us into their home and we stayed with them for 2 months.
The days and weeks moved by so slowly and we continued to have aftershocks up to 6 and 7 magnitudes. I was unable to sleep at night but was comforted by breastfeeding my daughter on our little mat throughout the night. Food was scarce for a while at the grocery stores but we never went without.
Once the mail service started again, the Yoshida’s family and friends started sending food and clothing for us. We were overwhelmed by the kindnesses we were shown by so many people from all over the world. Though I was suffering from a form of PTSD, amazingly my milk never dried up. My hair started falling out and my period returned 2 weeks after the disaster for the first time since Violet was born. My milk never stopped coming and my daughter never had to do without nourishment.
When my daughter was first born I never imagined that I would breastfeed as long as I have but I am so thankful that I did and still am. I never could have imagined that she would survive on my milk alone again at 17 months old. I never would have imagined the comfort breastfeeding brought me during the disaster. It gave our family a sense of normalcy amid the chaos. It stopped my heart from beating out of my chest with fear during the violent shaking of the aftershocks.
When I felt the world was crashing down all around me, I could hold our daughter in my arms and feel her relax and that calmed me like nothing else could. When I had no control over fixing the problems that surrounded me I felt confident that I could nourish my child and that she would not go hungry. Extended breastfeeding saved us. It saved me from slipping into deep depression and fear. It calmed me, it calmed my daughter and my husband who supported me through it all, It saved me.
From day one Violet kept asking to go home. I had no idea how to tell her that we no longer had a home to go to. She was so brave and resilient through it all.