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Locals with ties to Japan scramble to reach loved ones caught in chaos

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



For Kaori Maeshima, a scientist at Fermilab, the calls from concerned friends and co-workers began at 4 a.m. Friday, when her colleagues in Switzerland woke up to the news.

Maeshima has been working at Fermilab since 1990, but her family lives in Nagano, the mountainous prefecture in the north of Japan most Americans probably remember only from the Olympics. The region began to quake in the pre-dawn hours, not quite a day after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck just of the coast of Sendai, on the eastern coast, a four-hour train ride away.

“I am a little worried,” Maeshima said, “All the people are really concerned, and it was very nice, I thought.”

Everyone in her family is just fine, even her sister who lives closer to water. They’ve been communicating via e-mail since the Sendai quake.

“I couldn’t get ahold of them by telephone because the line was strange; I just couldn’t get through,” said Maeshima.

That’s been the story for many around the Fox Valley. In the hours since the quake and resulting tsunami, those with ties to Japan have been glued to their computers to reach family and friends.

Most had the same story: phone lines and cellular networks were jammed all day as one of the world’s most wired countries tries to sort through the chaos of back-to-back natural disasters.

“I’ve been in contact with my friends non-stop since last night,” said Sam Inman, a senior at North Central College in Naperville who, also unable to get through by phone, has been getting constant updates on Skype, Facebook and Mixi, a Japanese social networking site. Last year, as part of NCC’s popular Japanese exchange program, Inman studied in Tokyo, where power and transportation networks have been down and commuters were forced to leave the city center on foot to get back to the suburbs.

Six North Central students who are now studying abroad in Japan have all be accounted for, said Kimberly Larsson, assistant director of the office of international programs.

“We’ve been able to talk directly with one of our students; the rest we’ve heard from parents and family that they’re OK. Phones are intermittent at best, but we have been able to account for everybody.”

Four of those students, she said, were scheduled to return to the U.S. this week.

“The main concern now is how they will get home, if they’re able to get from where they are to the main airport by train or car with the roads,” said Larsson.

Transportation around the northern part of the country appears to have ceased.

“I got an e-mail from my mom this morning. Flights are canceled. The train is stopped. Electricity is stopped,” said Kazuya Usui, an exchange student from Kanagawa, just south of Tokyo.

Students had gathered to send off two exchange students who had planned to leave after finals, but travel plans for Takashi Inoue and Yusuke Kato are on hold.

Inoue said he was more concerned for his NCC friends that are now studying at Iwate University, about an hour from Sendai, than his family in Kyoto, who are far from the damage.

But for those stuck at Narita Airport, a major international hub for most of east Asia, the picture isn’t as clear.

Batavia resident Jan Patanella was traveling with colleagues in Japan and arrived at Narita at 2:30 p.m. Tokyo time, just minutes before the earthquake struck.

“The earthquake was unbelievable and the aftershocks were very strong as well,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Everyone was pretty calm and moved away from the windows. The terminal was eventually evacuated. We were allowed to come back inside after about 45 minutes.”

Patranella said people in the terminal have been given snacks and are sharing blankets and taking turns plugging in their cell phones.

The only information they’ve received about what’s going on elsewhere in Japan has been what friends have e-mailed and sent via Facebook, where Patanella posted, “We hope others in Japan are OK.”



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