Ululani Ortiz was in a staff room at Sannohe High School in Aomori, Japan, a week ago when she felt a tremor. A group of teachers darted out of the room to check on students when one yelled at Ortiz to get under her desk.
Alone in the room, Ortiz felt the tremors intensify. "I crouched under my small desk, hugging my laptop case and waited for it to stop, but it didn’t," she said in an e-mail from Japan. She heard glass break and saw computers and papers thrown about. "It just kept going."
Ortiz, who is from Waialae Iki, is one of dozens of people from Hawaii, mostly young adults, who teach English in Japan under the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. Ortiz, part of the JET-Seattle Program, teaches in Aomori, roughly 200 miles north of the tsunami-devastated area. About 90 teachers who are part of the JET-Hawaii Program teach in schools in the southern region of Japan, largely unaffected by the natural disaster.
Some teachers remain in shock. "I have been through earthquakes before, but never one like this. It was unreal," Ortiz said. Following the first tremor, a huge aftershock shook the school, prompting teachers and 300 students to exit the school.
Ortiz and her friends gathered at a house and pooled their food and supplies during a power outage that lasted a couple of days. She described the people of Japan as resilient, saying government, military officials and the community are working together to recover.
"There has been no looting or crime of any kind. The people in my town have been helpful, hopeful and kind-hearted," she said.
Contact via the Internet has been the main source of communication, primarily through Skype and Facebook, said Chase Wiggins, of Waialae-Kahala, who is teaching in Fukuoka in southern Japan.
Laura Berssenbrugge, an assistant language teacher in Mineshi, Yamaguchi-ken, on the southern tip of Honshu, was on a train with her parents along the coast of Kamakura a half-hour south of Tokyo when the train came to a sudden halt, causing people to fly forward. "Everything shook violently for a minute. The train tipped leftward off the tracks and lost power," Berssenbrugge, who is from the North Shore, said in an e-mail.
Fearing a threat of a tsunami, she said, she immediately flagged down a passing cab. As she and her parents were stuck in traffic, they watched the ocean pull back, revealing an area as big as about two football fields. But the surge that arrived was only a small wave on the side of the road, she said. After 12 hours in traffic, the Berssenbrugges arrived in Tokyo at 4 a.m. the next day.
"It is still incomprehensible how many people died in very similar situations just up the coast," Berssenbrugge said.
Social networks have provided invaluable support between fellow JET language teachers. "My JET friends and I have come to rely on each other for support as we are all experiencing similar isolation and confusion," Berssenbrugge said.