Japan quake affects D.C. area residents, abroad and at home

The Japanese flag flies at half-staff at the Japanese Embassy where locals talk about their fears and concerns following the Sendai earthquake and tsunami.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 1:24 AM

The Facebook status update was all Katherine Grossman of Capitol Hill had to rely on to know that her good friend, an English teacher in Sendai, Japan, was safe after Friday's devastating 8.9-magnitude earthquake.

"The first thing she posted was that she was in the auditorium and the principal was giving a boring speech when it happened," said Grossman, 28, who was in Sendai as a translator from 2004 to 2007. "The electricity was out and her computer was broken, and everything in her apartment was all over the place. She's cold, and people were building a bonfire outside to keep warm."

Grossman was among the many Washingtonians with ties to Japan who were frantically trying to reach family, friends and former colleagues to make sure they had survived the historic quake. Many were trying to find a way to help, such as the Fairfax County urban search and rescue squad, which was preparing to fly to Sendai to help locate survivors.

"We're taking things we need to operate for the worst-case scenario - the heavy riggers, tools that can break and cut reinforced concrete, our own medical team," said Fairfax battalion chief Chris Schaff, who was among 72 members heading out. The squad was among the first U.S. relief groups on the ground in Haiti last year after a 7.0-magnitude quake there.

At the nonprofit U.S-Japan Council , officials were checking on a 13-member delegation that was in Tokyo for nine days of meetings. Led by council president Irene Hirano-Inouye, wife of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the group was scheduled to meet Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Friday afternoon. Its bus was pulling up to Tokyo's New Otani Hotel when the quake struck.

"The bus was just rolling back and forth, and people came running out of the hotel," Susan Morita, a partner in the D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter, said in a cellphone interview. "It was frightening."

After the quake subsided, the group met some Japanese business executives, one of whom initially was amused by the Americans' nervousness. The businessman was from Kobe, where a massive quake killed thousands in 1995.

"He said when earthquakes move side to side . . . it was no cause for concern," Morita said. "We're in the meeting for a couple minutes when there's an aftershock that moves up and down. This guy looks at me and says, 'This is not good!' They evacuated us to the outdoor Japanese garden."

Risa Kamio, director of educational programs for the Japan-America Society of D.C., was flying from D.C. to Tokyo's Narita Airport, but her plane was diverted to Yokota Air Force Base, colleagues said.

Sarah Cook, a D.C.-area social worker who spent two years teaching English an hour north of Sendai, said one of her Japanese friends, who was a groomsman at her wedding, had not responded to her emails.

"The area we lived in was mostly farmers," Cook said. "We're worried about their livelihood."

Kaoru Chikushi, 29, a graduate student in public policy at the University of Maryland, was relieved to learn that her her mother in Tokyo was fine. Her father, a businessman, was stranded in Osaka, after trains and planes were grounded.

Five years ago, her parents completely rebuilt their house in Tokyo to make it more earthquake resistant.

"We were supposed to practice using an emergency phone system, but we never did," Chikushi said. "Now I feel like we need to better prepare."

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