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Student remembers quake experience

Sam Stryker | Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit with an epicenter 81 miles off the coast of Japan, sending tsunami waves up to 33 feet high to the island country, on Friday, March 11. The Japanese National Police Agency officially confirmed 8,805 deaths, 2,628 injured and 12,664 people missing as of Monday. Three nuclear power plants have suffered explosions in the aftermath.

University President Fr. John Jenkins released a statement following the disaster, expressing condolences for those affected by the earthquake and announcing a Mass for the people of Japan.

“My prayers are with those from our University who have been directly affected, as well as with the Japanese people as a whole,” he said.

Luckily for junior Massiel Gutierrez, currently studying abroad at Nanzan University in Nagoya, she was located far from the epicenter when the disaster struck.

“I was in the computer lab waiting for my friends’ class to get out. I thought I was having vertigo but then I realized everyone else in the room was freaking out too,” she said. “The earthquake was felt down here, it was about a five on the Richter scale here, but it didn’t cause any damage. It went on for a while, as far as earthquakes go, a little over a minute.”

Gutierrez said the damage to Nagoya was minimal due to its distance from the epicenter. For the most part, she said things did not seem different.

“We were a bit shaken up, but otherwise nothing happened here. In fact, I spent the rest of the day after the earthquake wandering around downtown with a friend of mine and everything was business as usual,” Gutierrez said. “People were discussing the earthquake, but nothing out of the ordinary was going on.”

The biggest challenge to returning to normalcy has been the representation of the aftermath in Western media, Gutierrez said.

“It’s been extremely sensationalist in its reporting and has been causing a lot of grief and stress and anxiety among the international community here,” she said. “Japan as a whole has been very calm and rational about the situation here.”

Gutierrez said the entire country has worked efficiently to accommodate those most affected by the disaster.

“Lots of other cities are welcoming people from the affected areas to stay, and there are many volunteer teams who have gone up north to help,” she said.

Gutierrez said the Office of International Studies (OIS) has maintained steady contact with her and Theresa Arico, the only other Notre Dame student studying at Nanzan University.

“The Notre Dame Office of International Studies has managed to be concerned but rational, which has been extremely rare among American universities’ study abroad offices,” Gutierrez said. “They have kept up with the news, with us and with Nanzan, but in a way that assuaged my nervousness that they would send me home unnecessarily.”

OIS Assistant Director Dr. Hong Zhu said the departments worked swiftly to confirm students studying in Nagoya were safe the day the earthquake hit.

“By the time I came into the office, I heard from our host institution. They emailed us that our students were safe. I called both the students,” she said. “They told me they were doing well. We contacted their parents and told them they were doing fine.”

Gutierrez said she has been able to express her safety to both family and friends back home.

“My parents were worried for a little bit, but once I assured them that I was safe and why I think so, they calmed down,” she said. “My friends have been slightly more panicked. A few of them still don’t understand why I’m staying.”

Zhu said maintaining contact with the students in Nagoya is crucial to ensuring a safe and smooth study abroad experience.

“We communicate with them daily, either on the phone or by email. We have told them to register with the embassy, which they should have done already, and we have told them not to travel,” she said. “We also told them to be ready if we decide to evacuate them from Nagoya.”

Gutierrez said she has not been able to take part in any relief efforts yet, but plans on participating in a fundraiser organized by international students. Aside from potentially canceled concerts, she said the earthquake has not affected her itinerary.

“Unless I get an opportunity to go to one of the affected areas to help in some manner, though, outside of that my plans haven’t changed much,” she said.

OIS cancelled its Tokyo program for the spring semester on March 18. Three students were scheduled to leave for Sophia University on March 27. 

Associate Director of OIS Julliet Mayinja said canceling the program was a challenging decision for the department.

“The key thing here is these decisions are not made lightly,” she said. “For the students in Tokyo, we made the decision but on the other hand we realize here we have a semester we need to figure out.”

Mayinja said canceling the program was a matter of maintaining an environment conducive to students’ academic success.

“The real reason for not sending students to Tokyo was not so much the earthquake but the aftermath. Power is disrupted, water shortages. Who knows, food might be an issue,” she said. “You don’t want to have that uncertainty with students who are not only trying to learn where they are and get their bearings but wonder if they have water and food. It is too much.”

Mayinja said in addition to losing a lot of the aspects of a good study abroad experience, OIS was also concerned with the needs of Japan and Sophia University.

“We also worry about the host country, the people who will receive us,” she said. “Are they really in the proper frame of mind to worry about us when they have all these other things going on? It just didn’t seem fair to expect them to do what they need to do for us and for our students.”

While the Tokyo program may be reinstated as soon as next semester, Zhu said students affected by the cancellation are still exploring both academic and study abroad options.

Though they cannot return to Notre Dame this semester, said she is pleased most of them still can graduate on time

“They are in good shape,” Zhu said. “They are not really behind at all.”

Junior Airi Kobayashi, whose mother is Japanese, said she first heard of the earthquake online right after it hit.

“I was actually still awake, around 4 in the morning here because I was working on a project. When I first heard about it, it was from Twitter,” she said. “I didn’t think it was a scam at first, I was just wondering what happened.”

Kobayashi, who served as the president of the Japan Club in 2009-10, contacted her parents in Taiwan, to see what was going on. In speaking with friends who still live in Japan, she said the earthquake could have struck at a worse time.

“My friends in Tokyo were [affected]. They were all safe. They were all awake, which was great. If it hit at night, they would all be sleeping,” Kobayashi said. “The biggest cause of death during earthquakes is when things start falling and crushing [people].”

Kobayashi said her friends mentioned problems with water, electricity and communications in the aftermath of the disaster. She said the tsunami that struck Japan afterwards was worse than the earthquake itself.

“I think that was the worst thing to happen to Japan. Even now, they are just starting to recover most of the bodies,” Kobayashi said. “Most of the deaths happened from the tsunami.”

Kobayashi said being far away from the situation was a difficult experience.

“I broke down on Friday when I first heard about it,” she said. “I was crying all day and I didn’t know what to do.”

Kobayashi is planning a variety of fundraising events, including a charity dinner and selling paper cranes, shirts and wristbands. She said she personally felt she had to help Japan recover.

“I decided I didn’t want to sit around and do nothing. I heard people have said what I am doing is really inspiring. I am not sure,” Kobayashi said. “I am just doing it because I want to do whatever I can.”

The religious mission of Notre Dame should inspire the university community to extend a helping hand, Kobayashi said.

“I don’t think as a Catholic university Notre Dame is more responsible [for relief efforts], but they should be more responsive in the sense they are more aware of the situation and they are more likely to help with open arms,” she said.

Kobayashi said despite the geographic distance, Americans should feel inspired to help those in Japan who are in need.

“I am an international student, and one of the things this country taught me is philanthropy and community service,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you are from.”

Alumni organizations have been particularly receptive to aiding relief efforts, Kobayashi said.

“The Asian Pacific Alumni was the first one to respond to my emails. They say they are already talking as a committee how they can raise funds and advertise for [the Japan Club],” she said. “The Notre Dame Alumni Association also responded that they definitely want to help.”

The variety of relief events is meant to showcase Japanese culture, Kobayashi said.

“For example, the paper crane project is unique to Japan,” she said. “For the dinner show, we are trying to have a video as an introduction of what is happening in Japan right now and what the Japan Club is doing for the effort.”