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After escaping tsunami, Acton teacher finds town devastated

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Published on April 1, 2011 in The Boston Globe MetroDesk Blog

Three days after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan earlier this month, Caitlin Churchill was able to return to Shizugawa, the area in the town of Minamisanriku she called home for nearly eight months.

She found a scene of utter devastation.

Churchill, a 22-year-old Acton native who had been teaching English in Japan, was several miles away teaching at a school in a different area of Minamisanriku when the disaster struck on March 11. Minamisanriku, in Miyagi Prefecture on the northeast coast of Japan, was one of the areas that were decimated by the tsunami.

Churchill said in a telephone interview from Japan earlier this week that when she returned, she found the shops and restaurants that she had frequented were destroyed; her apartment was demolished.

It was heartwrenching “seeing my town in that completely destroyed state,” said Churchill. “And then it was really unreal driving through the town at one point and trying to recognize everything and seeing all these places I used to go, where my house was, this one restaurant that me and my friend used to go to all the time, like a little local spot. Just seeing it completely and utterly destroyed was really hard.”

“There were definitely a lot of people in my town that weren’t able to get away fast enough,” she said.

Churchill narrowly escaped the tsunami herself. She had been teaching at a junior high school a few miles down the coast, where she taught English one day a week through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. While she was spending her free period in a room with another teacher, they got word of the tsunami and ran to a field behind the school with the rest of the students and teachers, roughly 100 people.

Initially, no one anticipated the water would rise so high, she said. When people realized the potential disaster, everyone from the school ran to higher ground in a forest area, along with about 20 townspeople who had run to the school when the tsunami warning was issued.

Once on the hill, she saw water had consumed the building’s first floor. The parking lot looked more like a continuation of the ocean, with cars floating. That night it was snowing – and she and the teachers made a fire and tried to keep the students calm.

“The first couple of days were just survival mode,” Churchill said. “I was trying to formulate a plan to get back to the main school and my town.”

After spending three nights in the forest and then returning to Shizugawa, where she stayed in a refugee shelter, she decided to make her way to the bigger city of Sendai.

Since then, Churchill has been staying in an apartment with other members of the program, waiting to see if she’ll be assigned to a different Japanese school.

“At this point, I’m just kind of waiting around to see what my company wants to do with me,” she said. “I would like to stay but it depends on if they can find a place for me.”

She said now most of her time is spent waiting – waiting in lines for food and gas, waiting to hear from colleagues and waiting to hear her next step from her teaching program. She’s also been trying to rebuild a wardrobe for herself after losing all of her belongings in the disaster.

Churchill left Japan this week for China, where she is visiting her sister on a previously planned trip. But she plans to return to Japan after the trip – and continue to wait.

Communication with those she left behind has been “touch and go,” she said. She said she believed at least some of the people she got to know while working in Minamisanriku have died.

“Every time I see pictures, it’s absolutely horrifying. It was the most beautiful town ever,” she said.

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Written by jdunccc

April 1, 2011 at 10:31 am

Posted in MetroDesk Blog, The Boston Globe

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Young Acton woman survived tsunami in hardest-hit area of Japan

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Published on March 17, 2011 in The Boston Globe MetroDesk Blog

A 22-year-old Acton resident has left the Japanese town where she narrowly escaped the tsunami to travel to a nearby city, where she hopes to find better shelter, her anxious mother says.

Caitlin Churchill, who was in Japan to teach English, was able to outrun the waves that swept up some of her students and co-workers and killed her supervisor, in the village of Minamisanriku, said her mother, Sharon Cassidy. Minamisanriku was perhaps the hardest-hit town in Japan, with as many as 10,000 people swallowed by the sea.

Churchill earlier this week told the dramatic story of her escape to an Associated Press correspondent who was on the ground in Japan.

Churchill spent the night in the forest after escaping the massive wave, her mother said Wednesday. Since then, Churchill has been staying at a shelter where there is no heat, no electricity, and limited food and blankets. So Churchill and two other English teachers have decided to try to travel to the nearby city of Sendai, hoping for better shelter.

Cassidy spent some tense days after the tsunami hit. Minamisanriku has made headlines, with networks broadcasting video showing the giant wave destroying the town. But through NBC-TV’s Today Show, Cassidy was able to reestablish contact with Caitlin via an NBC satellite phone at about 3 a.m. Monday.

Since then, Cassidy said, she has been in and out of contact with Churchill via her cellphone. But Cassidy believes her daughter’s cellphone battery has now died.

Cassidy said that the family is “kind of in limbo” because Churchill is still trying to honor her obligation to the teaching program, the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme.

“She could disregard that and flee but she doesn’t think that she should. … My fantasy is we rent a plane and go get her, but it’s not that easy,” Cassidy said.

Written by jdunccc

March 17, 2011 at 10:29 am

Posted in MetroDesk Blog, The Boston Globe

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