AS THE seven-metre-high tsunami crashed into Japan’s East Coast March 11, a Terrace resident there watched in horror.
Katherine Geeraert, born and raised in Terrace, lives in the north-eastern port town of Soma, Japan. Geeraert, an English teacher, stood watching from the top floor of the school where she works as the tsunami crashed into the town and swept through the streets.
Geeraert graduated from Caledonia Senior Secondary in 1998 and taught drama and social at Thornhill Junior Secondary from 2008 to 2010.
Her mother Charlotte is grateful she was at work, and not alone, when it happened.
The massive wave was spawned by one of the largest earthquakes recorded in history — 8.9 in magnitude. Soma, where Geeraert lives, is just 175 km from the epicentre. It is the largest earthquake reported in Japan, and the first major one in 180 years.
The earthquake was so powerful it was felt in Beijing, China, which is 2,500 km from the quake epicentre. It hit at 2:46 p.m. Japan Standard Time and was directly followed by aftershocks reaching up to 7.4 in magnitude.
The tsunami hit Soma at 3:50 p.m. It was roughly half the size of the tsunami that devastated Thailand in 2004.
Geeraert contacted her family in Terrace via Skype from her school as she stood watching debris float through the streets, and has since let them know she wasn’t physically hurt.
“She is staying with a friend,” said her mother. Whether or not she will return home as soon as possible has yet to be confirmed.
“We are still in a state of emergency,” Geeraert said soon after the event March 11, saying she wasn’t ready to talk about the experience just yet. Aftershocks were expected to continue throughout this week.
While the death toll is yet to be officially confirmed, the Japanese-Canadian Embassy said last Friday that police indicated at least 1,000 missing.
“That’s all we know so far,” said Kent Okada, media liaison for the embassy.
He explained the Japanese government could not be reached by phone call the day after the event.
“Tokyo is in chaos, the government is in chaos,” he said, explaining that the embassy will continue to find out as much as possible.
However, Okada was skeptical about the accuracy of estimations last Saturday.
“I fear over 10,000 people are already dead. At least,” he said. “That’s my personal impression.”
And while the death toll in Japan is yet to be tallied officially, the devastation is undeniable.
Part of the tsunami swept through the Fukushima prefecture, the Japanese equivalent to a province, where Soma is located. It carried homes, boats and cars as though they were inflatable pool toys. Port towns, like Soma, have been destroyed and were still under water as of last Saturday March 12.
“People are gathering on the top roofs of high school buildings and waiting for rescue,” he said. “High school buildings are just strong buildings.”
Schools are the strongest and tallest buildings built in Japanese port towns.
Okada explained that in Japanese port towns, houses and many buildings are made from wood. Schools are the tallest and most modernly constructed buildings in those areas, mostly made from cement. These are the safest buildings, he said.
“But those buildings are kind of small islands and water is coming around those,” Okada explained. “People are still waiting to be rescued by helicopter.”
“Different forces are trying to help them, but helicopters are short, so there are a lot of people waiting for that rescue.” Okada said the largest threat in the area is posed to the elderly, as when the power is down life-supporting hospital equipment doesn’t work.
Japan’s prime minister declared a nuclear emergency on March 12 in Fukushima after an explosion at the Daiichi Power Plant in Okuma-Machi. Soma is about 50 km from there.
But despite a 20km radius evacuation as of March 13, Okada explained it was mainly for preventative purposes and that the nuclear threat was relatively low.
“Last night I was very surprised they said explosions, but it wasn’t of a nuclear system just steam,” he said. “[The] nuclear plant is still safe. Radiation is not such a big problem now,” Okada said. “The steam contained just a small amount of radiation.”
While it was a cooling system that blew, Okada explained the plant is flooded with ocean water, which is keeping it cool. Due to this, he said the risk of a major explosion is minimal.
“As I said, radiating is not so strong around that nuclear plant. The evacuation is just to avoid tragedy in case an explosion happens. But the possibility of that explosion is not so much.”