TERRE HAUTE —
When last year’s earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan, Tatsuki Kawaguchi was flying back to his homeland after visiting Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
His flight got re-routed to Anchorage, Alaska, and from there, he frantically tried to contact family, friends and colleagues in Japan, but he couldn’t get through by phone or computer.
He is the University of Aizu’s global programs coordinator and had brought some students to Rose-Hulman to study.
When he finally made it home, he found his country in the midst of a catastrophe and rescue workers from other countries already had begun arriving. The magnitude 9 quake and resulting tsunami claimed more than 15,000 lives and destroyed cities and villages along the coast of the country’s Tohoku region. It also triggered a multi-reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
As Kawaguchi watched the news footage on television while waiting in Anchorage, “I couldn’t believe it was happening,” he said in an interview Tuesday at Rose-Hulman. He described it as a “nightmare.”
Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the natural disaster.
Kawaguchi, another faculty member and six Aizu students are visiting Rose-Hulman. The two faculty members leave today, and the students are here for three weeks.
The University of Aizu is about 21⁄2 hours by car from the coast where the tsunami occurred.
Today, the Japanese people remain resilient and they are helping each other to rebuild, but it’s a work in progress, Kawaguchi said. People remain concerned about the Fukushima nuclear reactors and radiation fallout.
He and faculty members from Rose-Hulman participated in a panel discussion Tuesday to commemorate the events of last year and to talk about the country’s recovery.
Patsy Brackin, a Rose-Hulman professor of mechanical engineering, said that in Japan, people’s view of the nuclear industry “is not as positive as it once was.”
Many people are saying they think all nuclear power should be stopped, and some governmental officials have said they’d like to phase out nuclear power, she said.
“There has been significant damage from the [nuclear] accident,” she said, and there is much testing of radiation levels in the affected area. Agriculture, livestock, drinking water and contaminated rubble are being tested.
“There was a significant release of radiation … and they are doing an excellent job of gathering data about what is going on,” she said.
Scott Clark, Rose-Hulman professor of anthropology, spent the recent academic quarter break in Japan and returned this past weekend. “I think it’s amazing how much they have done, but there is still a lot to do,” he said.
He did not visit the areas directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami, but he followed media accounts and talked to people who had first-hand knowledge.
“For most of Japan, things have returned to a state of normalcy,” he said.
But in the area more directly affected, questions remain about whether companies will rebuild and what will happen to farmland devastated by the tsunami.
Some companies moved operations elsewhere in Japan or even abroad and whether those will return “is a concern,” he said.
Much of the farmland was flooded and may have been contaminated by pollutants, he said.
Much of the debris has been cleared away and is now bare earth. Some rebuilding has begun.
“What is clear is that there is a lot of resilience and resolve … and people are working to rebuild and come back and they will,” Clark said. “But just what’s going to happen, I don’t think is clear to anyone.”
Other panelists were Kevin Sutterer, head of the department of civil engineering and Jong Hun Kim, assistant professor of economics.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.