Tohoku earthquake and tsunami: Four years later

  • Published
  • By Tim Flack
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs
Four years ago today - on March 11, 2011 - I was sitting in my office on Misawa Air Base, on the northern tip of the main island of Japan, when a massive magnitude-9 earthquake rocked the island nation.

It was 2:46 p.m. and I was finishing up my shift as a Stars and Stripes reporter. It was a slow news day for me since all the Airmen were participating in a base-wide training exercise.

As the building began to shake violently, I made the decision to head outside, joining a bunch of people who also had fled the arts and crafts center that shared my parking lot. I distinctly remember hearing children crying and the strange squeaking coming from the rocking cars and the swaying street lights. I jumped with a start when a wave of water crashed through the front doors of the indoor pool across the street. The earthquake had generated a mini-tsunami in the pool, a terrible foreshadow of what was headed for multiple communities dotting the rough and rocky coastal shoreline.

Sirens blared in Japanese, warning of an 18-foot tsunami. Our house sat a full mile from the coast, but I elected to drive inland with my family just to ensure we would be safe. Hours later, in a full electrical blackout, with snow falling and multiple aftershocks, I decided to pack up our quilts and head back to base to sleep in my office.

I'm a military veteran, but I was still amazed at how quickly the Air Force jumped into action, changing course from exercise to "real-world" emergency. Base personnel raced to set up generators for power, and the next morning found the commissary packed with people stocking up on food, water and other supplies. In the following weeks, Misawa became a hub for recovery efforts and I was lucky enough to see how all of the U.S. military services helped in "Operation Tomodachi."

Then-Col. Michael Rothstein, the 35th Fighter Wing commander, told me that his immediate priority was taking care of the community, providing heat, water, food and, eventually, full electricity. He directed the Airman and Family Readiness Center to establish an Emergency Family Assistance Control Center in the base's Mokuteki Community Center. Within hours, more than 1,000 people had attended briefings and used Air Force communication lines to call home. My family and I showered in the gym and slept on five of the more than 200 cots the 35th Force Support Squadron had set up in the Potter Fitness Center.

Members of the world's two best search-and-rescue teams landed at Misawa Air Base en route to some of the hardest hit coastal fishing villages. I followed their convoy to the village of Ofunato. The rescue workers searched for survivors in the devastation where thousands of homes had been demolished by the powerful tsunami.

In the weeks and months that followed, I wrote about the thousands of volunteers from Misawa Air Base who reached out to assist friends and neighbors in the local communities.  Volunteers first traveled to nearby Hachinohe, and continued to make their way south, logging countless hours digging out sludge, cleaning up debris and providing crucial manpower for clean-up efforts.

In Hachinohe, then-Tech. Sgt. Gregory Bird took a break from lugging huge chunks of debris to explain why he volunteered. "I want to get them back on their feet as soon as I can," he said of Hachinohe residents.

Misawa hosted other services who joined the efforts, including U.S. Navy helicopter crews. I sent a note to family and friends after flying on one resupply mission, explaining that it was awesome to watch the U.S. military put its technology to work on Operation Tomodachi.

"The military has mobilized thousands of troops, there is an entire carrier battle group sitting off the coast and directions are coming from an airborne command and control center," I wrote. "But when it comes down to it, the best help still comes via physically and mentally exhausting work, small crews lugging thousands of pounds of water, food, clothing, medicine and toiletries one helicopter flight at a time, box by box, into some pretty remote and devastated areas."

A small team of U.S. Navy Seabees who were stationed at Misawa Air Base continued to labor for months after the earthquake. I interviewed them in July 2011, when a three-man team had continued to clean debris fields with two Navy front-end loaders and a dump truck.

Billy Knox, then leading chief petty officer of the public works department at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command on Misawa Air Base, said the decision to keep helping was easy.

"It's our bread and butter," he said of the construction work.

Base residents also collected supplies, held fundraisers and found other ways to help the local Japanese communities.

Gemini Sanford, who helped volunteer at a local orphanage, collected 132 bags of food, seven boxes of fresh vegetables and 30 gallons of milk to donate to the Bikou-en Children's Care House. She told her in-laws about the efforts during a call home. They called a Seattle-area radio station, and Gemini found herself repeating the story on "The Rond and Don Show" on KIRO-FM. The radio hosts challenged their listening audience to lend a hand.

The end result was 200 tons of supplies, valued at $1.2 million, that were collected and sent to Misawa. Gemini's effort to help one orphanage blossomed into a project that aided similar homes all across northern Japan.

"I am awed and inspired by the fact that something that started as small as trying to get enough food for a week or two ... has blossomed into something that can do so much good for so many people," she said. "I'm really, deeply moved."

Four years later, I'm still awed and inspired by what I experienced during Operation Tomodachi.