Adela Uchida's journal from Japan

March 12, 2012 2:03:34 AM PDT
Reporter Adela Uchida was in Japan covering the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami one year ago. She's back now to report on how far the country has come since such a devastating blow from Mother Nature. Read her entries below and follow her reports on Eyewitness News. Monday, March 12, 3:20am Houston time/ 5:20 pm Toykyo time

    Narita, Japan. Photographer Linh Nguyen and I are a half hour away from takeoff. It feels like we have been in Japan far longer than a week. We covered a lot of ground, talked to a lot of people, saw the scale of Japan's disaster a year later. Recovery is going to take a long time.

    I come away from this having seen how the Japanese people have come together, how they endure and how very appreciative they are of the help they have received from people all over the world.

    Gambate Nippon!

Sunday, March 11, 8:40am Houston time/11:40pm Tokyo time

    Sendai, Japan. It is hard to imagine the panic here in the northeastern part of Japan one year ago tonight.

    On the evening of March 11, 2011, the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami were hours past. The worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl was underway at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where workers were desperately trying to get things under control.

    At the exact same time, I was sitting in the Houston passport office downtown, feverishly trying to renew my passport, which had expired three weeks earlier. Coincidentally, I had renewed it in 2001 in order to travel to Japan as well.

    When I arrived here a year ago, the situation was changing hour by hour. The first night, there were at least three aftershocks, one powerful enough to rattle things in my hotel room. It shook me awake and I lay there listening to the clinking and thinking I shouldn't try to stand up.

    It was bitterly cold in northeastern Japan. Survivors who had just hours before lost their loved ones, their homes and all their earthly possessions were faced with surviving the freezing night.

    Tonight in Sendai, it's snowing - fat, wet flakes that melt on my face and in my hair, making everything feel even colder.

    Those aftershocks last March triggered more tsunami fears. As we stood on the shore of Chiba Prefecture, the more southern end of the tsunami zone, another tsunami warning was issued. It was March 14 or 15, 2011, I think. We watched boats heading in a straight line out to sea and decided to get away from the shore. It turned out to be a false alarm.

    Yesterday, I talked to a fisherman-turned-study center boss in Minami Sanriku. On March 11, 2011, he says he tried to get in his boat and head out to sea because a boat in the open ocean can simply ride over a tsunami. It turned out he didn't have enough time, so he -- also a volunteer firefighter -- joined the rest of the volunteer firefighters and escaped by heading into the surrounding mountains.

    Today at the Sendai International Center, an American young man fresh out of college was assigned to help us, the foreign media. Sam was eager to let us know that we could track the radiation levels measured here in Sendai on the city's website.

    Last March, as the temperatures at Fukushima Daiichi soared, radiation escaped, contaminating the area around the plant. People living in a 12-mile radius of the plant were forced to evacuate.

    They still haven't been allowed back home. It could be years. They left behind homes and belongings, their sense of community and their pets.

    A year ago, radiation levels were rising and the wind was shifting. We were asked to begin taking potassium iodide, to stop the radiation from affecting our thyroid glands. We were given dosimeters - small dark yellow stickers we were to wear on our skin to measure radiation exposure.

    For the record, mine only changed to the faintest of grays.

    With the dispensing of potassium iodide and dosimeters, we were also given orders to leave Japan. I felt two ways about it: one, I wanted to stay and cover the developing story and two, I wanted to go home because I was very tired and yes, a little bit afraid.

    This year, I'm coming home on schedule. And I feel two ways about it again: one, I want to stay and go cover more desolate parts of the damaged northeastern coast. I want to go see what happened in the place where the tsunami was the highest: 127.5 feet high according to NHK. I want to see the abandoned towns around Fukushima Daiichi. This story is not over.

    And two, I want to go home because I am very tired.

    I am not afraid this year, just sad for the people who have so far to go before life is normal again, and inspired by others who are helping the survivors in any way that can, no matter how small.

Saturday, March 10, 5:46pm Houston time/8:46am Tokyo time (Sunday)

    Photographer Linh Nguyen and I finally got some sleep after a 40-hour push to gather news and get it on the air in Houston and gather news again. I am so inspired by the people here who are stepping up to help where they can, the determination and endurance of survivors and the deep emotions I have seen. I am sad from seeing the damage and devastation. We were in Minami Sanriku yesterday and I can't get the images of the destruction out of my head. Pictures and video don't really do it justice.

    I spent a lot of time in Japan as a child and I'm really realizing that Japan is changed by the disaster.

    There were 19 nuclear plants here before the disaster. Now only two remain online. Electricity bills have gone up because of that, and they're not sure they'll be able to keep up with demand when summer comes and everyone turns on the A/C.

    On a personal note, we got a flat tire trying to navigate the destroyed roads in Minami Sanriku yesterday. It was brutally cold and the sun was setting. Kudos to photographer Linh Nguyen for getting down in the mud and changing the flat. We got back to Sendai safely and collapsed from exhaustion. Our motto: "Sleep is for the weak." And really, compared to what these people are going through, it's nothing.

Saturday, March 10, 8am Houston time/11pm Tokyo time

    We just got back to Sendai from Minami Sanriku. I am blown away by damage the tsunami did to the town. There are mountains of debris piled up from the cleanup and lots of crushed and battered cars. In what was once the downtown area there are just concrete foundations and metal cables jutting up at odd angles. A boat tossed on to the hospital is still there, as is a car deposited on top of a building a couple of stories tall.

    Minami Sanriku's town hall is a red steel skeleton. An elaborate makeshift memorial marks what was the front door.

    I can't help but think it was the middle of the afternoon when the tsunami hit the town. People were going about their business jn Minami Sanriku that day. Those foundations were businesses open that day,and homes where people lived. A lot of them didn't survive.

    We'll be filing stories from Minami Sanriku for Eyewitness News at 6 and 10.

    Tomorrow we're going to the anniversary memorial ceremony here in Sendai.

Saturday, March 10, 12:27am Houston time/3:27pm Tokyo time

    Saturday afternoon, 3:27 Japan time. We just pulled into Minami Sanriku and the devastation one year later... defies description. Metal cables stand away from concrete foundations. Buildings left standing are steel skeletons against a wet gray sky. Thousands of battered cars are lined up in empty lots. It's haunting to think that each of those cars was owned by someone once.

Friday, March 10, 11:45pm Houston time/2:45pm Tokyo time (Saturday)

    We are winding our way through Cypress and Pine Mountains to Minami Sanriku, a town that sits on the most battered coast in northeastern Japan. Pics to come.

Friday, March 9, 11:45am Houston time/3:45am Tokyo time (Saturday)

    An earthquake just rattled us a little bit, sitting on the 14th floor of our hotel. Photographer Linh Nguyen and I are sitting at laptops - he's editing and I'm sitting on the edge of the bed, on the phone. All of a sudden the bed started to roll like a wave underneath me and the room started trembling. "Uh, aftershock?" I asked Linh. Then a couple of seconds later, more assertively, "Dude that's an earthquake!" Linh said, "Yeah it is!" (Clearly we have highly intelligent conversations when we're alarmed.) I hung up abruptly and had to call back a minute later when it stopped. We're hearing that it was a magnitude 5.5 earthquake centered in Ibaraki, which is fairly well south of us.

Friday, March 9, 9am Houston time/12am Tokyo time (Saturday)

    Midnight here. I am in my hotel room in downtown Sendai, writing my stories for Eyewitness News at 4, Live at 5 and Eyewitness News at 6. My photographer, Linh Nguyen, is outside shooting video of Sendai in the snow. It's a heavy wet snow -- remember Japan is a nation of islands -- so the streets are slick and wet. This is cold weather, no doubt, but doubly cold for a couple of Houstonians who aren't used to such weather. We are thankful for heavy coats and warm boots!

Friday, March 9, 5:40am Houston time/8:40pm Tokyo time

    We're in Sendai and it's snowing. This is what the weather was like a year ago, when all those hundreds of thousands of people were suddenly homeless. Tonight from where I'm sitting (in a minivan, in traffic), the power is on, people are going about their business and there's no sign of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake nor a giant wall of water.

    But as the cliche goes, appearances can be deceiving.

Thursday, March 8, 8:30pm Houston time/11:30am Tokyo time (Friday)

    Entering Tochigi Prefecture. Passing lots of farmland. There are a lot of bamboo and pine trees - forested where it hasn't been cleared for agriculture. It's been cold and rainy all day. The hills rising out of the mist are beautiful.

Thursday, March 8, 2pm Houston time/5am Tokyo time (Friday)

    Good morning from Japan! It's before 5am here and we are going to make trek north in a few hours. We're planning to make a few stops along the way - one stop hopefully to see some of the pets that were abandoned when their owners evacuated in a hurry from the Fukushima area a year ago. The way I understand it - they're not necessarily putting them all up for adoption. They're still trying to find their families. We are also going to talk to a man who has spearheaded an effort to give jobs to human survivors. More than 15,000 people died last year, but those who survived not only lost homes, but jobs too when the earthquake and tsunami wiped out their workplaces too.

    It is see-your-breath cold in Narita. It's colder in northern Japan and there us snow on the ground there.

Thursday, March 8, 6am Houston time/9pm Tokyo time

    I've been in Japan for about five hours, after a 14 hour flight from Houston. You might remember that I couldn't locate some family members a year ago when the disaster struck. Well they met me and photographer Linh Nguyen at the airport. My mom's cousin had tears in her eyes as she talked about March 11,2011. We also talked to a woman who raises money to help the pets left behind when the people living near the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were forced to evacuate. We're off in search of dinner now. Heading north in the morning.