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Goodrich graduate safe after Japan earthquake, tsunami



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Onica with host mother in Japan. Photo provided. (click for larger version)
March 16, 2011 - Tony Onica has experienced dozens of earthquakes since he moved to Japan in August 2009 to teach English.

The 2005 Goodrich High School graduate says only one or two of those are even worth mentioning, and only because they caused minor delays to the train schedule, which is very rare. Earthquakes happen so frequently in the island nation that a person could be oblivious to the occurrence.

"You could even be engrossed in a really good book and then a minute later, someone will ask you about the earthquake," wrote Onica in an e-mail to The Citizen this week."Then you look up, blink a few times, ask the obligatory question, 'What earthquake?' and go on with life with the vague sensation that you've missed out on something."

Onica didn't miss out on the earthquake that shook Japan and registered an 8.9 magnitude on the Richter Scale at its epicenter on March 11. The disaster also spawned a tsunami, and according to the most recent news reports, is believed to have killed more than 10,000 people. Subsequent nuclear reactor explosions forced thousands inside and at presstime, workers continued attempts to cool the reactors.

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"There can be no confusion— the devastation is extensive, but the Japanese government and news networks have been working around the clock to save people, reestablish communication and provision of food and water, and to keep us informed," said Onica, who has been appalled at "fear-mongering and blatant inaccuracies" from some American news reports. "I think people were more panicked and ill-informed back home than people in my area, and a 2-hour car ride in fair traffic conditions would put me at some of these disaster areas whose images you've become familiar with, I'm sure."

Onica lives and works in the Kanto region of Japan, a large part of the Tokyo metropolitan area. He was teaching a class of juniors on the third floor of a high school in the capital of Tochigi-ken, Utsunomiya at about 2:46 p.m. (local time) when the quake began. He recalled there was a pause, then as the quake built in intensity, he and the students realized it was more serious than one of the many minor tremors the country experiences.

The boys in the class began laughing, riled up from the intensity. Onica said it was the end of the school day and they would have used any excuse "to act nuts," but this situation was different. The Japanese teacher in the class with Onica was holding on to the edge of the blackboard. They yelled at the students to get under the desks as things fell, doors and windows were opened and banks of lockers were moved into various unnatural positions in the hallway. The power went out about a minute into the earthquake.

"It's a strange experience feeling the earth, which is always a stable constant, moving beneath your feet," he said. "When the building started to sway, I realized there was little we could do if things got worse. All we could do was be prepared to evacuate the building after the main shock subsided, and so that's what we did. Although the main quake was probably only 3-5 minutes long, it was accompanied by aftershocks that made it seem unending."

There are approximately 850 students at the school where Onica teaches, and they and the staff were outside in fair, albeit cold weather, on a sports field for approximately two hours. As well as being a teacher, Onica is also a prefectural adviser whose duties include counseling, stress management and dealing with trauma. To relieve tension, he walked among the students, chatting. Onica said he was asked about 30 times the question, "Do you have earthquakes in America?" to which he patiently explained that America is a big place and his home doesn't have earthquakes, but does have tornadoes. This revelation drew noises of surprise from the Japanese.

Students were lined up according to class and after a head count, Onica and other teachers began trying to collect as much information as possible on the situation with their cell phones, in what he called one of the most noble examples of technology in use that he has ever seen.

Onica's school is located roughly 200 miles from the epicenter and he said in his area, the quake registered a 5.4 and there was no serious damage.

Many of the school's students commute an hour or even more to get to school, using trains, buses and bicycles. Some students didn't get home until very late. Despite the chaos of the blackout and jammed phone lines, Onica said at every intersection there were people directing traffic, no looting, and little panic. His apartment is about a 15-minute bike ride from the school and he called the journey "surreal."

"The air was tense, all the lights were off, there was this ominous, pervasive quiet that seems to follow quickly at the heels of tragedy," Onica said. "But thanks to those directing traffic at the intersections, I made it back to my apartment and then met up with friends of mine downtown without much difficulty."

There was no real damage at his apartment— just a broken clock and general disarray. Onica has helped to confirm the health and well-being of all the English teachers in his prefecture and said there is definitely a sense of unity and helpfulness in the community.

Onica's prefecture (comparable to a state in this country) is landlocked and was not directly affected by the tsunami. Tochigi-ken is about 100 miles directly south of a nuclear power plant, but while people are concerned, Onica said in his prefecture they are still well below radiation levels that would affect human health.

The 2008 Oakland University graduate plans to assist in relief efforts. To find out how you can help, visit redcross.org.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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