Weather Updates

Chicagoans worry about loved ones in Japan

Renko Yamamoto boarded an airplane in Tokyo Friday bound for O’Hare Airport and her first meeting with her 7-month-old granddaughter Nanako Yamamoto.

Just hours into the flight, an in-flight message interrupted the movie the 70-year-old Yamamoto was watching: There had been an earthquake in Japan -- a big one. Immediately, passengers started talking with one another about just how bad it might be.

“There was surprise,” she said as her daughter Yuko Yamamoto translated outside the Mitsuwa Marketplace, a Japanese grocery store, in Arlington Heights. “It sounds like a once in 100 years earthquake.”

Yuko Yamamoto said her mother had previously told stories of her great-grandmother’s experience in a similar earthquake.

“It’s disbelief at this point,” Yuko Yamamoto said. “She just missed it by three hours.”

Chicagoans with Japanese connections experienced it all Friday: Worry -- the kind that ties stomachs in knots -- relief and utter disbelief at the scale of the disaster.

At the Japanese Consulate at 737 N. Michigan, the phones rang endlessly, with hundreds of callers wanting information, wanting help finding loved ones. A receptionist did what she could to calm panicked, crying, hysterical callers -- and she explained that the consul general had very little information available, directing them to the consulate website.

A sleepy Mishie Baba saw the TV images of debris-choked surf inundating the Japanese coastline Friday morning and immediately thought of his daughter, who lives about 25 miles west of Tokyo.

Baba, executive director of the Japan America Society of Chicago, tried again and again to reach her by phone but always got the same recorded message: The line is busy. Please try again later.

He e-mailed her: “Are you OK?”

Finally, an hour later, Yayoi Fugame, who teaches near Tokyo, e-mailed back: “I’m OK.”

“The pictures from the TV were awful,” said Baba, who has lived in Chicago for 22 years. “I’ve never seen it like that. We were so worried.”

Kay Kawaguchi, a social worker at the Japanese American Service Committee in Lakeview, said she awoke to shock and fear about her extended family in Osaka and Wakayama. “All I could think of was the Kobe earthquake in 1985, remembering hearing hour after hour, 1,000 people dead, then 2,000, 3,000. It was horrible! More than 5,000 people died.” Her frantic calls went unanswered much of the morning. Then she finally got a voice on the other end of the line, and was relieved when family members told her their areas of Japan had seen little effect.

Wilmette native Omar Siddiqui, 29, was at work on the 23rd floor of his Tokyo office when the 8.9 magnitude quake hit.

Siddiqui, who works in the financial services industry, said he and two colleagues “bolted out the door to the stairwell” when the shaking began.

“It was pretty scary running down endless stairs ... while the shaking was getting increasingly violent,” Siddiqui said in an e-mail to the Chicago Sun-Times. “The good news is we are all safe and sound. Public transport was completely grounded and is just seeing signs of recovery. Luckily, I live three kilometers from work and was able to walk back.”

Chicago native Maya Frommer was in Tokyo when the ground began to shake, and told CBS2 Friday morning she was on an elevated train heading to the airport at the time.

“It’s shaking again,” said Frommer, who works in the financial services industry in Tokyo. “We have another earthquake right now. It’s just shaking again, the same as it was five minutes ago. It goes side to side, and everything that’s kind of hanging, you can hear it moving. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get to sleep tonight. It’s been a really nerve-wracking day.”

Meanwhile, at O’Hare Airport Friday morning, Akiko Futagami, who works in the gate area for Japan Airlines, said she’d been anxious much of the morning about her 82-year-old mother, who lives in a coastal area in central Japan. Futagami said she was relieved when she finally spoke to her mother on the elderly woman’s cell phone.

“My mother said there was no power, no gas,” Futagami said. “She was concerned her home was going to fall. Now she is just going to stay inside. I’m so calm now that I’ve talked to my mom.”

Later Friday morning, Baba’s wife, Noreen Baba, reached their daughter by phone and learned that she’d been at her teaching job when the quake hit.

“She was teaching in the classroom, and the building shook so much,” Baba said. “She told everyone to go out and run to the outside. She was really scared.”

The elementary school students’ parents were told to pick up their kids, then Fugame tried to make her way home, about 12 miles away, Baba said. But no trains were running, and all of the buses were packed, Baba said. Fugame eventually called her husband, and he came and drove her home, Baba said.

Baba said he later learned that his daughter had been in such a panic that she’d not heard when her father called her cell phone.

“When you live in Japan, you get used to [earthquakes] but not like this,” Baba said.

He said his daughter “didn’t know what was going to happen — it was so big a shake.”

Jennifer Prough, an assistant professor of humanities and east Asian studies at Valparaiso University, said she just returned Tuesday from Japan with a group of nine students. Two of them, she said, were from Northwest Indiana.

She said she first learned of the earthquake when she awoke to a text message from her parents.

“They wanted to make sure I was back in the country,” Prough said.

Prough, who said she lived in Tokyo from 2000 to 2002, said many buildings there are built to withstand earthquakes.

“You feel earthquakes on a fairly regular basis,” she said.

But Friday’s quake is being called the largest in the country’s history, and Prough said she’s still waiting with everyone else to find out what it will mean for Japan.

“The people I talked to said they felt it, and it was really scary, but things were OK in their area,” Prough said.

The disaster hit home for Noriko Wachowski, a Japanese language teacher at Crown Point High School.

“All my family’s in Japan, my parents, relatives, uncles, cousins,” Wachowski said Friday morning.

The 37-year-old instructor, who was born in Japan, got good news after checking on her loved ones.

“They are doing fine because my family is from the southwest side of Japan,” said Wachowski, explaining that northern Japan bore the brunt of the impact.

The Cedar Lake resident said she was relieved that her family and relatives were safe, but realized many had died.

“I still worry about the rest of the country,” said Wachowski, who is a sponsor of Crown Point High School’s Japanese Club and lived in the country until she was 24.

Wachowski said she was considering having the club make 1,000 paper cranes, an origami tradition in Japanese culture. The bird is an auspicious symbol in Japan, the high school’s paper cranes would be destined for Japan, with the idea of sending them “to the schools in the area that was hit hard.”

Along with Wachowski, Chesterton resident Aya Kresal also has family in the country. When Kresal heard of the earthquake, she called home to Yokohama, a city southeast of Tokyo. The phones weren’t working the first time Kresal called, but she reached her family around 6:30 a.m. Friday.

“I just worry, but on the other hand, Japan, we get earthquakes all the time,” Kresal said. “Sometimes, they’re big ones.”

A long vacation of island-hopping in Hawaii turned terrifying for Thais and Jim Hudson.

The Worth couple are wrapping up the final days of a long vacation at the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas in Maui. But at about 8 p.m. Thursday night, news that a massive earthquake had struck Japan had them anxious and glued to the TV in their hotel room.

Forecasters issued a tsunami watch for Maui at 10 p.m. An hour later, the watch turned into a warning.

“It was terrifying, because you know it’s coming, and by 11 or 12 o’clock, you know it’s coming in three hours,” Thais Hudson said Friday via telephone from her room at the resort in Maui.

“What do you do? You just sit and wait. Every hour it’s coming closer and closer, and the sirens rattle you, too. It’s just unnerving. I’m used to tornados, not tsunamis.”

Authorities ordered a forced evacuation along the shoreline, and many high-rise hotels evacuated the first three floors. The Westin evacuated all first-floor lodgers and relocated them into open rooms on floors 4, where the Hudsons’ room is, and higher, Hudson said.

“We stayed up all night. There’s no way you can sleep knowing it’s coming and not knowing when or what would happen,” she said.

Hudson went down to the lobby area before the tsunami hit to get information and saw panicked travelers searching for safety. Some tried to flee to the airport and others to higher ground, she said.

“People were fleeing, trying to get out the door, getting in their cars or just crossing the street to wait it out on a higher ground,” she said. “People were a little panicky. Nobody wanted to be right here on the oceanfront.”

Hudson said she thought briefly about fleeing, too, but stayed because hotel personnel seemed knowledgeable and orderly and her room was equipped with both an in-room speaker system and a telephone message system, she said.

“I did consider going to higher ground, but I didn’t consider the airport,” she said. “I felt reassured because they only evacuated one floor and they were prepared with extra water and supplies. And they’ve been through this before.”

Hotel guests were told to expect a loss of electricity and disruptions in sewer and water service, as well as a loss of Internet connection, she said. Cell phone service was the first to go, she said, followed by the Internet, but they never lost electricity, and water remained available.

The couple watched footage of the tsunami hitting Maui on their hotel room TV and saw 6- to 8-foot waves crashing into the island coastline.

“The first surge was pretty small, but this expert on TV said, ‘Don’t be fooled. Don’t let your guard down,’ and he was right. The bigger waves came after that,” she said. “They were showing photos where the ocean just gets sucked away before the wave comes in, and all the reefs were exposed. At that point, you go, ‘Whoa.’ That’s not something you normally see.”

Around 4 a.m., the danger to Maui had dissipated, and the couple finally got a few hours’ rest. Despite a hotel staff recommendation to remain in their hotel room, curiosity led Thais Hudson out onto the Westin grounds at daybreak Friday.

“You can tell the water came up pretty high, but it didn’t come over the dunes,” she said. “I looked to the beach area and I couldn’t believe it. They were serving breakfast.”

Orders to stay away from the water remained in place as of Friday afternoon, but Hudson said the island seemed to have returned to normal.

“Seriously, the water looks calmer today than yesterday. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping,” she said. “It looks gorgeous out there.”

The Hudsons expected to return to their Worth home Sunday night, armed with a vacation story unlike any other.

“We feel very, very fortunate,” she said.

Northwest Indiana attorney John Dull and his family were at a show in Lahaina, a city on the island of Maui, when the magicians cut the performance early because of the tsunami warning. At first, the audience thought the performers were joking.

“When we went outside, the sirens were going, and the police and civil defense were going up and down the street telling people to leave,” Dull said. “A lot of people were heading toward the airport ... We turned around, and we came back to our hotel.”

Dull stayed up all night and watched the wave surges hit the beach from his hotel’s balcony.

“What everyone did in the hotel was take their cars and park them on the second floor of the parking garage in case the surge came in,” Dull said. “Where we were it didn’t come in like that and invade the hotel.”

Contributing: Amy Lee, Bob Kostanczuk, Chelsea Schneider Kirk and Jon Seidel.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.