March 11, 2011, is a day that lives in the memories of many of my close friends and associates from the Yokota Air Base assignment. For them, it’s a day in which their lives were changed…literally shaken to the core. For me, it was a day of panic and concern. That brings me to this week’s moment in the Flashback Friday series: the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
How I first came across this moment? For me, it all started at 4:45am Eastern Standard Time. That’s when my alarm clock went off and I went about my normal Friday pre-work routine in the Westchester apartment. As it was a unit physical fitness training day, I turned on my television to The Weather Channel and went about getting myself ready as I listened to the weather forecast. But the broadcast was interrupted with live news out of Tokyo, where a major earthquake and tsunami had hit the island nation of Japan. I remember hearing it from my bathroom and dropping the deodorant that I was putting on. My eyes were glued to the television, just taking it in.
What it meant to me then? In the immediate moment, there was very serious concern for me. I had people who were close to me living in Japan at the time: my spiritual mother, my co-best friend and wingman, another co-best friend and de facto older sister, my pastor, and one of my professional mentors…not to mention a host of other people I had grown close to during my time on the island. I frantically tried to call all of them but I couldn’t get through. All of the Allied Telesis communication lines were busy. It certainly made the drive from Waldorf to Camp Springs for PT very tense. In fact, it made PT tense. I couldn’t focus on the exercises at all. All I did was sit on the bleachers, constantly looking at my phone in hopes that I’d get a call from one of them to signal they were OK. When I got back home from PT, I got dressed in my uniform quickly and tuned into CNN to see what was going on. The destruction was incredible. It was an estimated 9.0 earthquake followed by a massive tsunami. Luckily for me, Tokyo had escaped the worst of it but the carnage in Sendai and the areas along the coast were heartbreaking. I knew there was a significant loss of life. It wasn’t until the early afternoon in the United States that I started getting calls and messages from my friends back in Japan, signaling they were OK. All of their voices sounded different though. We had been through hundreds of earthquakes together, including 13 that we really felt, and I had never heard such concern and terror in their voices. I was scared for them because of the aftershocks.
What it means to me now? 11 years later, I still feel a certain way about that day. I felt powerless to be of assistance to my people from half a world away. When I visited Tokyo 6 months later, it was a different vibe. You could tell that the events of 3/11/2011 changed everybody and everything. Hell, it even changed me and I didn’t have any physical experience with the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. In August of that year, I got my own jolt with the DC area earthquake. All I remember was thinking that the whole Potomac River was going to wash ashore of I-495 and wipe out everything in sight. Fortunately, it was only a 2.4 earthquake with minor damage but my need to be ready was cemented. Today, I live in Bogotá. We have earthquakes here every day but we’re far away from the coast and shielded enough by the Andes Mountains that I don’t concern myself with tsunamis but I do worry about the quakes. That’s why I take it so personally my preparation for them. I also don’t want any of my people to feel like I did on March 11, 2011…not knowing their fate until many, many hours later. For me, I already have prepared email messages, Facebook and Twitter drafts, and text message templates ready to go out immediately all over the world just in case.