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Japan's earthquake and tsunami: alumnus tells the story on Facebook and Twitter

Jonathan Levine

An earthquake that registered 9.1 on the Richter scale, resulting in a tsunami wave that scientists now estimate towered 124 feet high and traveled two miles inland, struck Japan on March 11, 2011. The resulting disaster is of such magnitude it is difficult for those who are half a world away to comprehend the damage from the natural disasters.

Like telegrams from the front lines, Jonathan Levine-Ogura ’96 tells the story in 160-character SMS (short message service) bursts as he chronicles efforts to bring help to the survivors of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in remote areas in Japan.

            His posts, along with photos he has taken as he makes weekend runs to help those who are either living in shelters or the ruined shells of their homes, waiting for food, clothing, medicines and fuel, appear on Twitter and Facebook.

            U.S. media, following his Twitter posts, have singled Jonathan out for his comments on the situation. He was interviewed for National Public Radio’s “Here and Now,” and was filmed by NBC for “Nightly News” on March 21.

            History Professor Gary Ostower ’61, a classmate of Jonathan’s father, Steve Levine, keeps in touch with Steve and Michiko, Jonathan’s parents through e-mail.  In the days immediately after the earthquake, Ostrower reached out to Jonathan, who has lived in Japan since shortly after his graduation from Alfred. Jonathan now lives in Hanamaki, City, Japan (Iwate Prefecture) with his wife Chihiro and their two children.

            “As the crow flies, we are probably 50 miles or so away from Kamaishi. That’s one of the places of the first tsunami footage you saw live on TV,’’ Jonathan wrote to Ostrower on March 15. “The geography of the area is fjord-like, so tsunamis do considerable more damage by focusing energy in the narrow waterways.”

            Jonathan used to live in a place called Rikuzen Takata. It was wiped out by the tsunami. “My (former) apartment is gone. My favorite sake brewery is gone. Memories and friends, washed out to sea.”
            The only things that stopped the onslaught of the enormous tidal wave were the foothills and the pull of gravity, said Jonathan. “This is the very mountainous region. A range of mountains rising close to 6,000 feet separates the central prefecturial plain from the coast. No superhighways exist going east to west north of Sendai. The quickest way to send in supplies is by helicopter. We have a major regional airport that is just getting back online (four days after the quake) but is being used as base for military aid operations. Right now I hear the roar of huge C130s flying in and out.”

            Levine-Ogura spent the first few days after the disaster, when life throughout the country was still disrupted, organizing private relief efforts. “Through my Twitter and FB (Facebook) info, I have networked help from Hokkaido (the northern-most region of Japan).

            “We are going in tomorrow to the coast once private volunteers have arrived via Akita by ferry on the west. I have procured aid supplies that are in dire need: medicine, food, clothes,” Levine-Ogura wrote on March 18, once week after the disasters.

            “We are also trying to evacuate young families and children from either the nuclear or coastal zones via Japan Red Cross chartered flights to Hokkaido for temporary shelter. This is more difficult,” he admitted.

            His most-recent posts are more positive:

            On Monday, April 11, one month after the earthquake and tsunami, he wrote:
            Helping those in need in Omoto. People needed fresh veggies and fruit and that’s what we brought. Fuel seems to be in better supply since last week, which was good news.”

            Loading up the back of his van with fuel cans, food, medicine, clothing and blankets, Levine-Ogura and his friends have now made five trips to help those who are not in shelters and not easily reached by the government or more formal aid programs.

            “We can only do runs on the weekends since we have work responsibilities,” Jonathan said. “I’d rather be doing this as my full-time job.”
            All places are now getting help, Jonathan said, “but the remote places we have been to have seen very little.” As for cleanup efforts, there are noticeable changes, but living conditions are  “far from normal. The effort is just too big for the government to handle. People really need small groups like ours to help them through the week.”

            Jonathan is collecting donations from friends and colleagues, and has spent his own money as well to provide the needed supplies. “We raised nearly $6,000 in just two weeks,” he said. “Before that, we were just using our own money to buy supplies. Donations are just by word-of-mouth. On our own time, we have been getting supplies by shopping around. Occasionally, we have gotten a donation of goods as well. “

            In the days immediately following the earthquake and tsunami, Jonathan said food was scarce and so was fuel. Both were being rationed. Now, he says,  supplies of food and fuel “are pretty much back to normal. We can fill up our car on our own and give aid. It’s a changing situation. We’ve been asking what people need, and then we bring it.”

            While he can see steady improvements, “conditions are bleak,” he says.  “It’s stressful” in the shelters that are over-capacity. “People with homes that are still standing, but not habitable” have been forced into the shelters as well. “Some of these people are getting kicked out, only to live back in their broken homes. Food is in short supply [in the hardest-hit areas.]

            “People are getting frustrated with each other. People need a car to go shopping, but most of their cars have been destroyed. Even if there is fuel, they can’t go anywhere. It’s a no-win situation for many people. Destitute is a good way to sum it up.”

Worries about radiation from the damaged Fukushima nuclear generating plant “are the new normal,” Jonathan says. But “staying well-informed is the best way to keep your head around this disaster. I think the foreign media plays up the panic scale a bit too much.”

After-shocks continue to disrupt lives. Two weeks after the enormous earthquake, Jonathan posted on Facebook how scary a 6.4 aftershock was, enough so that he sent his two young children under the table to protect them from possible falling debris.

Still, through it all, Jonathan says he’s not thinking about leaving his adopted country. “Leaving has never crossed my mind,” he said. “If I were in Fukushima, that would be another story,” he admitted.
            Jonathan teaches at a nursing college and high school that is affiliated with the college. “We have a five-year nursing program for high school students, and a general course program at the high school that is independent from the junior college itself.”



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