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How an aftershock feels, and what it means

Japan, April 10, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Carol Skowron/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Children in northeastern Japan's numerous displacement shelters were among thousands who had their lives thrown into chaos again by Thursday's strong aftershock. Photo: Carol Skowron/Mercy Corps

On Thursday, I arrived in our northern area of operation for a planned visit to see firsthand the damage caused by the tsunami and the hard work all of the staff was putting in towards relief and recovery operations. Although transportation is improving daily, getting to Ichinoseki — our jumping off point for operations — took a good part of the day on subways, trains and a plane.

The destruction I witnessed was so complete it was hard to comprehend, but the amazing spirit of the people I met and the recovery that was unfolding was even more memorable. Well organized shelters, every level of government and every type of volunteer was working towards attempting to get life back to normal. A lot had been done in the few short weeks since the earthquake, but there was a lot left to do to begin to get back to normal.

Peace Winds and Mercy Corps were working steadily to put into place programs to meet the physical and emotional needs of those affected.

The end of a long day came with me working at my desk in the hotel, sending off notes and photographs to my colleagues in Portland, discussing our plans for a new project with Griff, and hoping I could get it all wrapped up soon to enjoy a hot Japanese bath before bed. After 11:00 P.M., as Griff and I discussed the needs for sports programs for the children, we were jolted by the powerful shock of an earthquake followed by shaking that let us know that this was more than a small tremor.

As we bolted to the door, the mirror crashed over behind us and things were thrown to the floor. We ended up on the floor of the hallway, shaken but unhurt. We all checked in on each other, and carefully picked our way down the stairs in the dark to meet outside. No one was injured, but electricity was out, there was some damage to the hotel, and we needed to relocate.

Peace Winds staff quickly came to pick us up and we drove through the darkened city to the small apartment a Peace Winds staff had just rented. We spent the night sleeping on the floor, experiencing aftershocks every half hour or so, but glad to be together.

The powerful quake meant the loss of power, loss of running water and meals mostly consisting of snack food for us. Some cold, some inconvenience but over and over I thought, “What about those who just went through this a month ago as well? What must they be feeling? How can they ever relax and begin to feel safe again?”

The following day, several of the Comfort For Kids staff and volunteers piled into the car and drove to the evacuation centers to see how the kids were doing. Life continued as it had for the days before, a well run operation kept them fed and cared for. But as they played and colored and folded paper origami, a few talked about their situations. They have had a lot to overcome, and life certainly isn’t back to normal yet.