Former Rowan residents in midst of Japan earthquake horror

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 11, 2011

By Scott Jenkins
Jamie Harris was taking a lunch break in her second-floor apartment Friday when the world began to shake. It was the second time she’d experienced an earthquake in the past week, but during the first one, the young teacher’s school just “shook a little bit.”
She didn’t think much of it, other than it was kind of interesting.
“I had no idea that days later, we would all be in the middle of this devastating quake,” Harris told the Post via Facebook on Friday.
The most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan struck off the island nation’s northeastern coast early Friday afternoon — about 12:45 a.m. Friday Eastern Standard Time. It unleashed a 23-foot wall of water that slammed into the coastline. Hundreds were confirmed dead.
Harris is a former Rowan County resident and the daughter or Ric and Carol Harris. The Rowan-Cabarrus Community College alumnae and University of North Carolina at Charlotte graduate teaches at Amity English School in Saitama, Japan.
She lives inland and more than 200 miles from Sendai, the Japanese city closest to the earthquake’s epicenter, but still felt its force.
At first, she thought a truck had hit her building.
“Then the room shook so much that all my things started falling from the shelves,” Harris wrote. She threw clothes on the floor and covered photographs of her family and friends, her camera and laptop, and her rice cooker.
As glass crashed around her, Harris wrote, “I kept praying it would stop. As soon as it did, I ran down the stairs and to my school to make sure the teachers and students where OK.”
No students were there for class at the time. The manager and teachers who were at the school told Harris they’d never felt an earthquake so powerful. They waited out the aftershocks, which continued all day.
Around 3 a.m. Rowan time, Harris called her parents. She didn’t want them to see the news and worry when they got up later. Carol Harris said she and her husband were glad their daughter got them out of bed.
Later in the day, they started using Skype to communicate.
Carol Harris said they had worried about Jamie living in Japan, where earthquakes are not uncommon. She noted, however, that her daughter lived in Seattle before, which sits on a fault line and near a dormant volcano.
“Geographically speaking, we were happy she got out of Seattle,” Carol Harris said.
Jamie Harris said the best thing people can do is stay positive for their friends or loved ones in Japan and for the nation, which she calls “a bright country with many capable people who look out for each other as a whole country.”
Harris was able to contact most of her friends in Japan and make sure they were safe. She planned to try to help people who came to her area for relief. And she was trying to get back to normal as quickly as possible, though that may be difficult to do soon.
Things seemed calm in Saitama, she wrote, and “people just want to stay home.” Some couldn’t get home, though. The trains stopped running, so two co-workers stayed at Harris’ apartment across the street from her school.
“The tremors and the warnings continue, but for now everything is OK here,” Harris wrote.
• • •
Carmen Swindel of Long Ferry Road heard the news about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan around 7 a.m. Friday. She immediately thought of her son, Cpl. John Swindel, who is stationed on Okinawa with the U.S. Marine Corps.
She knew she couldn’t get in touch with her son because he’d been in training for several days.
“I was just hoping and praying the Lord would have John call, and he did,” she said.
John Swindel called his parents, Carmen and Larry, around 8:30 a.m. — 10:30 p.m. in Japan — to say that he and everyone in his unit were fine. The Pentagon said later in the day that all U.S. military personnel in Japan had been accounted for.
Even though Okinawa is about 400 miles south of the nation’s main island, John Swindel told his mother Marines on his base “were aware it was happening. … It just shook up their base.”
The Swindels also have a daughter, Gaile Armstrong, who lives in the northern California coastal city of Eureka with her husband, William Armstrong. He is a chief in the U.S. Coast Guard and was deployed Friday to help with operations such as the search for a man who was missing after being washed out to sea as surges topped 8 feet.
Unable to get in touch with their daughter most of the day, Carmen Swindel said they finally got to speak with her around 4 p.m.
“A town that was about 30 minutes away from Eureka was hit pretty bad, and they’ve got them on standby in case they need to evacuate them,” Carmen Swindel said. “She’s just going to keep us posted.”
• • •
When David Hood got home from work around 9 p.m. Thursday night in Hawaii, he turned his TV to news, as he always does. That’s when he learned of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
“It was just wall-to-wall coverage at 9 o’clock Hawaii time,” he said by telephone Friday.
Hood, a 1986 graduate of North Hills Christian School and the son of Walter and Liz Hood, went to college at Chaminade University in Honolulu and stayed in Hawaii, where he works in construction and renovation.
When he heard about the disaster in Japan and the prediction that a tsunami was headed for the Hawaiian Islands, Hood started calling friends and watching the clock, awaiting the hour forecasters said the wave would hit the Pacific Ocean chain.
At 11 p.m., government officials began sounding sirens all over the island and police with bullhorns cruised the streets, advising residents and tourists in low-lying areas to seek higher ground. They closed highways near the ocean so drivers wouldn’t be swept away if a big wave hit and emergency vehicles would have clear access if they needed it.
“It was pretty spectacular,” Hood said of the preparation.
Hood lives in a valley away from the coast, so he stayed put. He heard waves varied in height along the coastline and on the islands. Waves up to nearly 7 feet were reported, causing some property damage.
“I think that we probably fared very well,” Hood said. He recalled a similar tsunami warning last year that culminated in a 6-inch change in wave height. “We tend to be a bit on the cautious side.”
• • •
Rowan County resident Karrie Crowell’s brother, Capt. Lucas Crabtree, is stationed in Hawaii with the U.S. Army. She got a text from her sister-in-law Friday saying everyone was fine. The couple and their daughters live in the mountains of Oahu.
“They did get back to us and everything’s OK,” Crowell said.
Even before she heard from her brother’s wife, Crowell was comforted that her brother and his family live away from the coast and that the tsunami was smaller than originally feared in Hawaii.
Waves about 3 feet high were recorded in Oahu and Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands, and about 7 feet high on Maui.