The day the earth shook
The memories of March 11, 2011 are indelibly etched into James Steward’s mind. How could they not be?
“It was exactly 2:47 pm when the earthquake hit,” recalls James. “I know that because all of the clocks at our school stopped at that moment.”
James is the Principal of Tohoku International School (Grades K-12) in Sendai, Japan, an historic coastal city that’s located about 300 km north of Tokyo. James, his Japanese-Canadian wife Alana and their three children, ages fourteen, twelve, and three, have called Sendai home the last three years. This historic city of one million people has many things to recommend it: a wonderful temperate climate, breathtakingly beautiful scenery, and a laid-back lifestyle. However, Sendai sits atop a major geological fault line, and earth tremors are common here. “They’re just a part of life in Sendai. You get used to them,” says James.
Even so, nothing the 47-year-old native of North Bay, ON, had ever experienced prepared him for the earthquake that devastated Sendai on the afternoon of March 11.
James was in the boardroom of his school, meeting with some administrators from the local school district. The Japanese officials had come to ask James’s advice on ways to introduce more English into classrooms of area schools. “When the building began to shake, we all took cover under the conference table,” recalls James. “Most earthquakes end quickly, but this one was different. As the shaking continued and grew ever more intense, we all knew this was a bad one.”
The quake, the epicentre of which was just 45 km from Sendai, deep under the waters of Pacific Ocean, measured 9.0 in magnitude. That meant it was one of the most intense earthquakes ever recorded.
The quake caused chaos – but no panic – inside the Tohoku school. Objects tumbled from shelves, pictures fell off the buckling walls, ceiling tiles came down, and breaking windows on the third floor sent panes of glass crashing into the school’s main entrance. However, far more problematic was an effect of the quake that James and his companions knew nothing about at that moment: the seismic upheaval had thrown up tsunami waves more than 30 metres high. As this killer wall of water roared toward Sendai, James and his Japanese visitors were still struggling to take stock of the situation, assess the damage, and evacuate the building.
Much of Sendai is built on a coastal plain, and so when the tsunami hit the city it did so with unrestrained force and fury. As many as 30,000 people are believed to have perished almost instantly. Fortunately, the Tohoku school sits on a hillside 20 km from the coast, and so the tsunami did not reach it. Miraculously, James and his family, all of the school’s 100 students, their teachers, and the school’s staff survived. All but 15 of the students managed to return home that night, though doing so was a challenge.
Says James, “After the earthquake we had no electrical power, no phone service, no television, and no internet; that was the case for three or four days. Many roads in the area were impassable, and gas stations were closed.”
As yet there were no fears about the radiation leaking from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plants, just 80 km south. The Stewards stayed at their house for four days; James’s mother had been visiting at the time of the quake, and once she was able to catch a flight home to Vancouver, James and his family, along with 17 other people from the Tohoku school, sought refuge in a hotel near Niigata, on Japan’s west coast.
The Stewards were determined to return to Sendai, and James – as a gesture of solidarity with city residents – pledged to reopen the school by the end of March. While concerns over elevation levels of radiation have clouded the school’s long-term future – and indeed that of Sendai itself – James reports that Tohoku school is again holding classes, a morale-building feat that has won praise from the Japanese media.
“Sendai is a beautiful city, and the people here are wonderful. I believe they’ll not only recover from this disaster, they’ll rise again and be 100 times stronger because of it. I’m committed to the school, the city of Sendai, and to Japan, and I want do all I can to make that happen.”