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The American Embassy in Tokyo is telling Americans to evacuate a radius of about 50 miles from the Fukushima Plant — a significantly graver assessment of Japan's nuclear crisis than the approximately 12-mile radius ordered by the Japanese government.
That growing sense of danger is prompting many Americans in Japan to leave the country altogether. Among the recent evacuees are Rachel DePalma of Chelmsford and her boyfriend Evan Storer. The two met as undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts Amherst back in 2005 and for the past two years have been living and teaching English in Iwaki, Japan, about 50 miles from the nuclear facility.
The two flew out of Tokyo on Tuesday, arrived in Boston on Wednesday and on Thursday morning they joined Morning Edition's Bob Oakes in the studio. Below is the transcript of their story, starting with DePalma's account of the moment the earthquake struck, while she and Storer were at work inside the junior high school where they both teach.
DEPALMA: It was the day of the graduation ceremony, the school year ends in March, and so the students had gone home like maybe two hours before, it was around 2:30 and we both started hearing this beeping noise from somebody's cell phone, which is one of the earthquake alarms.
So at first it takes a moment to react to that and understand what it is, and you only usually get maybe 20 seconds of warning from one of those, but then all the sudden the room started to shake, sort of like being on a boat in a storm sort of thing. I kind of did wonder if I was going to die.
So what was it like for you in those next couple days? Did you have problems with electricity? Did you have problems getting food, water, supplies for yourselves?
STORER: Yeah. We stayed pretty late at school on Friday night, we stayed until about 10 o'clock, helping out with the people that were coming in to get help. We were making sure that they had plenty of water and blankets and things like that. So that school has its own water tank on the roof, so they were able to supply water as long as the tank was full.
DEPALMA: It really was difficult to find supplies. By the end of Friday night, even the convenience stores were bought out of everything, except for beer and pens and single-serving salad dressing packets. There was really nothing that could be eaten.
And over the next couple days, when the news about the reactor started coming in, we were talking with friends in the area who had a car with maybe half a tank of gas in it, trying to decide if we were going to leave or not. And the evacuation radius had been set at a 20 km radius in all directions around the plant, and we live about 70 km south of there. So we were thinking if they expand it to 30 km, we're going to get up and go.
So Evan came to stay at my apartment and we had the news on all night and we would sleep in shifts of two or three hours so the other one would be up watching the news and we could know if things had really gone south.
Was there a specific decision making point?
DEPALMA: I think the point where we decided that the benefits of going outweighed the risks was on Monday morning when they had the report of another tsunami coming toward us. And we heard them announcing on the radio, saying over and over again: 'A tsunami is coming, it will hit at 11:15, there is no time, get to higher ground, there is no time.'
We ran up to the fourth floor of the school and I got a call from my friend Lisa who was sobbing, she was hysterical on the phone, telling us to get to a safe place and she was literally running for the hills as she did that. And then after it became apparent that the tsunami wouldn't come as far as we were, it wouldn't make it all the way to us, I got a call from her fiance saying, 'we're leaving, come with us.'
It was just completely impossible to get gas and we didn't want to end up stranded in a car waiting for radiation to drift down to us because the gas didn't get us far enough.
Given the proximity of the plant, did you worry about radiation drifting your way?
DEPALMA: We were worried and especially because the teachers were saying that anything that blew off the coast of Fukushima would blow right back down to us, also on the coast, further south of there. And nobody really knew whether the government could believed on how far away you had to be to be safe from the radiation.
STORER: Yeah. The radiation, the potential of radiation, coming down was a pretty good kick in the pants to get moving sooner rather than later. But I think the lack of food and water was really the big thing. We went to one grocery store and people were lined up all the way around it, waiting for three hours to get in, just to get whatever was left.
DEPALMA: And you can't wait in the radiation.
STORER: Just in case there was radiation coming. We were both wearing surgical masks, heavy coats, scarfs to protect our necks and hats and things — trying to show as little skin as possible.
So when you left, which way did you go? Where did you head for?
STORER: We went west to a town called Ishikawa, it's about an hour west in the mountains of our town Iwaki.
DEPALMA: We wanted to go Tokyo but the prefecture just south of us, between us and Tokyo, the tsunami damages were much worse there. Everybody was saying it's much safer to go, rather than go straight south to Tokyo, go west and then south.
STORER: If we had gone to Tokyo, you know, without the highways operational — well at least not for general people — we would have had to take coastal roads and there's no telling what kind of damage there could be.
Did you have to wait long for a flight out of Tokyo?
DEPALMA: By the time we got to the airport all the ticket windows had closed down. And the people were telling us, 'you just have to get on the Internet and buy one.' And I think so many people were trying to do that the wireless in the airport was almost completely unusable. So I ended up calling my mother looking for advice and she got on the Internet looking for one for us.
And we found a great flight leaving early the next morning for a pretty high price but within the realm of possibility. And as we were debating about it, I was relaying the information to Evan — I think it was about, what, $1,600, $1,700 — the price suddenly jumped to $8,400. So we bought the next cheap one that we could find that would get us out — you know, "cheap."
So I have to ask: Is it a round-trip ticket?
DEPALMA: It is a round-trip ticket. We set the date so that if school were to start up at the beginning of April and we knew that it was safe to go back, that we would be able to go. I don't know how we'll be sure that it's safe, but I do want to go back, I want to see my friends there and see the teachers and continue teaching my students.
STORER: Yeah, I felt a little bit bad leaving, but on the other hand, they were all telling me to go.
You felt bad leaving because they're still there?
STORER: Yeah, because they have to stay, they don't have a choice.
How helpful was it having each other there?
DEPALMA: I don't know what I would have done.
STORER: Well just having somebody that you know you can rely on is more than you can ask for. You know, even little things like being able to sleep in shifts and keep track of the news and get each other's back through the whole thing.
DEPALMA: Or somebody to consult on, to say, 'Do you think this is really true? When would it be bad enough to leave?' I think I would have been a complete mess if I had tried to do it alone.
DePalma blogged about her experience the day of the quake and in the days that followed. You can read those posts here.
This program aired on March 18, 2011.
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