All eyes on Japan in Austin

Published 8:03 am Monday, March 21, 2011

A survivor pushes a bicycle on his way to a shelter in Minamisanriku town, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, Friday, March 18, a week after a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami. (AP Photo/Yomiuri Shimbun, Hiroaki Ono)

The concerns for loved ones effected by the massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami that struck Japan last week have stretched halfway across the globe to Austin.

More than a week after a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami devestated Japan’s eastern coast, the destruction in the county continues to grow as radiation spreads from Fukashima’s crippled nuclear power.

Hormel Institute researcher Naomi Oi is likely watching the crisis in her home nation closer than most.

Email newsletter signup

Oi grew up in Osaka, about a 12-hour drive from the nuclear crisis near Fukashima, and she said her family is safe and — like much of the world — is closely watching the aftermath of the tsunami and earthquake.

“They say their life is normal, but every on TV talks about the earthquake and the nuclear power plant,” she said.

While she’s glad she reached her family, Oi still hasn’t been able to contact a few friends who live near Fukashima, where the crisis continues at a nuclear power plant.

Even though the nuclear meltdown is catching the headlines, Oi said her family is fearful of aftershocks.

Now that she knows her family is OK, Oi said she’s not calling home to keep the phone lines open.

Oi said her family, like many people in Japan, is frustrated they can’t do more to aid the aftermath.

“They want to go an help people, but they can’t go, so they feel very bad,” she said.

Oi also said she wishes she could do more to help her home nation. Though she’s on the other side of the world, Oi is still trying to help however she can. She said has already sent a donation to a Japanese embassy.

On the other side

Other residents have been helping where they can, too. Members of St. Olaf Lutheran Church have supported Nathan and Sharonette Bowman, two U.S. missionaries who live in Japan, for more than a decade according to Pastor Ron Barnett.

Barnett said the Bowmans e-mailed him on Tuesday with a firsthand account of what’s happened in Kyushu, a large island in the southwestern part of Japan more than 900 miles from Sendai, where the quake and tsunami hit hardest.

“Some relatives and friends in Tokyo have reportedly lost a majority of their china and anything breakable,” the Bowmans wrote in their e-mail.

The Bowmans described how Japan’s recent earthquake troubles started last month, when smaller geological movements caused volcanoes to erupt in Kimishima and other places.

“It’s just phenomenal,” Barnett said. “It’s very hard to understand how these people will be able to put their lives together.”

Since the Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors are currently in danger of a nuclear meltdown, volunteers aren’t allowed into the disaster area according to the Bowmans.

“(We) believe that the final (fatality) count, if ever known, will rise above

30,000,” the Bowmans wrote. “No one could have even imagined the extent of incursion the tsunami made.”

As a result, local celebrations in Kyushu for the construction of a shinkansen, or “bullet train” through Kumamoto have been canceled.

“The (reparation efforts) will come close to what Japan had to do after

WWII,” the Bowmans wrote. “Not only will Japan have to replace the buildings that came down or were washed away, but will have to replace many of the standing structures in the affected areas, as they are no longer earthquake resistant.”

The Bowmans plan to visit St. Olaf’s congregation later this summer.

Nuclear worries

The situation in Japan is already affecting the U.S., as a recent Gallup poll said about 70 percent of Americans said the crisis has made them more concerned about nuclear energy.

However, Blooming Prairie resident Jerry Lillie hopes the crisis doesn’t deter people from nuclear energy.

While in the Navy, Lillie worked for at a nuclear power plant in Idaho in the early 1970s, and he said he hopes the situation doesn’t have any long-term effects.

“I like to think nothing really, really bad is going to come of this,” he said.

From his experience, Lillie said nuclear energy is safe, though it is often misunderstood. He noted the nuclear reaction doesn’t produce the energy, as the reaction heats water to operate turbines.

“As a whole, I think they’re a safe mechanism if operated properly,” he said.

Such nuclear systems are set up with fail safes, but he noted the earthquake posed a rare scenario.

“It’s not that they don’t try to do things right, this was just an unfortunate (situation),” he said.