MU students urged to leave Japan after earthquake, tsunami

Thursday, March 17, 2011 | 9:35 p.m. CDT; updated 11:05 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 18, 2011

COLUMBIA — Travis Worsowicz felt the magnitude 8.9 earthquake that hit Japan on March 11 while walking into his dorm room after a field trip. He and other students were evacuated from the dorm because of the aftershocks.

The earthquake caused a tsunami, and the combined force killed more than 10,000 people in Japan and caused major problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. A number of explosions have rocked the plant, and there is a threat of radiation exposure in the region. The AP reports the international community is coming together to help keep the plant under control and radiation contained. Still, many are evacuating Japan, including MU study abroad students such as Worsowicz.

“I didn’t think it was big news at the time,” Worsowicz, a junior broadcast journalism major, said.

Students spent the first night after the quake on the first floor of the building while news was still coming out. “We slowly realized how big it was," Worsowicz said. "It was the most depressing thing I’ve ever felt. We just sat there and had to wait for more crappy news to come in.”

After a tutoring session with a professor the next day, Worsowicz decided to go out and see the devastation in Shibuya, which he called the Times Square of Tokyo.

“People were actually scared," he said. "I had never seen it that empty before. It was the scariest thing in this world. This was the scariest moment. He said there was not much destruction, but everything was closed.

By Sunday, Worsowicz and his friends were tired of watching the news, but they were keeping an eye on reports about the nuclear plant.

“It was beautiful outside, and you could tell people were trying to go back to normal, but it was an odd mood,” he said. When Worsowicz made his way out to a ball field, there were only two baseball games compared with the normal five; there weren’t nearly as many people as usual, he said.

Monday came quickly for Worsowicz, and it was time for classes even though he said he had no desire to go or do anything. He, along with others in his building, was still unclear about what was happening. He said it was the first day international students started going home because of developing news about the nuclear plant and the potential radiation exposure.

Jim Buell, a former MU student, was on a train bound for Tokyo when the earthquake happened. After being stranded on the train for a few hours, he walked home and remained there for several days.

“All the while, we were watching the news about the escalating nuclear disaster, so me and some friends went to go get reentry permits in case we had to leave the country,” Buell said.

There was a threat of radioactive rain on Tuesday, Worsowicz said. It was reported that radiation levels were elevated. “It wasn’t enough to be dangerous yet, but the fact that it existed at all scared people,” he said. His friends from California were told their program was being canceled, but MU told Worsowicz he could safely stay there.

Worsowicz said people were stockpiling groceries Tuesday evening: “I saw this old lady with food piled in her cart. I figured she’s probably lived through something worse than this. But she was definitely getting ready for what’s going on,” he said. “But it ended up being nothing. All the restaurants were open, and I went out to eat at this crappy place, but it was a decent meal.”

Wednesday, Worsowicz’s California friends were ordered to leave Japan. “They were really pissed off. Things finally felt like they were getting back to normal,” he said. He said people were starting to come out of their homes.

“I received an email from John Wilkerson that said they believed I was safe, but I got the vibe that other students in Japan wanted to leave,” Worsowicz said. Wilkerson is a student service coordinator in the MU study abroad office.

Buell and his friends decided they needed to leave Japan. His major concern was the potential threat of radiation exposure. “I needed to get out of here yesterday," Buell said Thursday. "I wanted to be out earlier.”

Worsowicz was awoken Thursday morning, he said, by the largest aftershock since the initial quake. That evening, there was a farewell party for his California friends. They were going to go out to dinner, but everything closed early, so they ended up at a bar to grab a bite to eat.

At about 1:30 a.m. Friday, Worsowicz and Wilkerson began emailing back and forth.

“Things started to look up," Worsowicz said. "Then I talked to John, and he said there was a strong chance I was going home. So I asked him to be honest about my chances of staying here, and he said, ‘Yeah, you’re coming home.’”

Worsowicz contemplated his options and decided it was best to go back to his home in Oregon. “My family was relieved. But it just doesn’t make sense to stay here right now,” he said.

Worsowicz is to depart from the airport in Tokyo at 3:30 p.m. JST on Friday and arrive in Portland, Ore., on Saturday at approximately 8:30 a.m. PDT.

“I have no idea how I am getting to the airport. I have to pack, and I only have two suitcases. I don’t really have a game plan. I’m just going to try and cram as much as I can in my suitcases and backpack,” he said.

Christian Basi, assistant director of news services at MU, said the students are not being forced to leave Japan but are being strongly recommended to evacuate. Basi said three of the nine students in Japan are already home, and the other six still haven't decided to return. “We are doing everything possible to help them,” he said.

It took Buell and five of his friends three tries to book flights to Bangkok. “We went to the airport and slept there near the ticket desk,” Buell said. They are waiting in a hotel in Bangkok until they feel it is safe to return to Japan.

“I want to go back; I’m hoping to be back within the next two weeks,” he said.

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