YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Though their lives have been turned upside down, there was a sense of calm in the air as hundreds of family members filled Yokota’s passenger terminal Tuesday.
Many who were escaping Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis following the March 11 earthquake weren’t exactly sure where they were headed in the U.S., but seemed relieved to be on their way.
Crystal Harmon and her two young boys milled among busloads of families brought from nearby Yokosuka Naval Base for flights.
Like those on the first flight out of Yokota on Saturday, Harmon was expecting to fly to Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport as she tried to make her way to Virginia. But an hour before the planned noon departure, the passengers found out instead they were heading to Travis Air Force Base in northern California.
“It just feels good to be going somewhere,” said Harmon, 33, who’s four months pregnant.
“I don’t think the risk is that high,” she said. But she decided to leaving after considering all the risks for her unborn child.
Since the earthquake and subsequent tsunami knocked out power to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant about 130 miles north of Tokyo, reports of elevated radiation levels and a possible nuclear meltdown have stoked fears among Japanese and some in the U.S. military community.
Late last week, the military announced what it’s calling a “voluntary departure” program for all Defense Department family members. The first of the evacuation flights left Saturday, but the operation didn’t get into full swing until Tuesday.
Harmon was among 570 U.S. military dependents and a smattering of active-duty and civilian personnel from Yokosuka who left on two flights out of Yokota on Tuesday. Another 240 Yokota-based dependents and personnel left on a third flight.
A flight left Misawa Air Base at about 8:20 p.m. Tuesday with 240 passengers bound for Seattle. The next flight out of Misawa was set for Wednesday at 12:50 p.m., Misawa officials said.
Another U.S.-bound flight from Naval Air Facility Atsugi was expected to depart late Tuesday night, but Atsugi could not be reached for confirmation.
“I’ve just been telling myself everything’s going to be OK, and that’s how it’s worked out so far,” said Quinia Anderson, 24, who was heading to Michigan with her 4-year-old son and 2-month-old daughter.
“We have a place to go, and we’ve got food. The rest will be OK,” said Anderson, who’s husband is deployed aboard the USS George Washington.
At Misawa Air Base, Master Sgt. Lee Walton brought his wife, Tiffany, and their three daughters to the base club early Tuesday morning to prepare for their flight later in the day.
Tiffany Walton called the departure “bittersweet,” saying the main reason she is leaving is because she is pregnant. Lee Walton said since there are reports of radiation in water and food, “I think it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
But neither the reports of contaminated food nor Monday’s announcement that the military would start handing out potassium iodide pills to fight off the effects of radiation were enough to raise the anxiety level noticeably of those waiting for a ride back to the States.
And those who have be waiting since last week to get a flight didn’t express frustration over the lack of flights leaving Japan.
“I think all the panicky people left a few days ago on commercial flights,” said Harmon, the Navy wife, whose husband is out to sea on the USS John S. McCain. She and most others on their way out Tuesday appeared to be traveling with small children minus their spouses, and tried to keep up in touch with family members back in the U.S. about their arrival details.
Cutting through all the crying babies, the maze of strollers and diaper bags, the energetic kids running on sugar and little sleep, barking dogs in makeshift kennels trying to be squeezed onto the departing flights, the scene was upbeat and friendly.
“I’m getting a lot of patient families in a process still being devised,” said Lisa Field, wife of U.S. Forces Japan Commander Lt. Gen. Burton Field. The general’s wife was greeting those flying out of Yokota’s passenger terminal just before noon.
Her advice: “Trust your leadership, that we’re doing what’s best for you,” said Field, the mother of two active-duty airmen, one in South Korea, one in Texas. “I’ll be the last military spouse on the plane if that’s how it goes.”
The individuals departing — estimated to be around 8,000 at five U.S. installations in mainland Japan — resulted in near-empty hallways and classrooms at many Defense Department schools in the region. More than 2,700 of the 8,500 students on mainland Japan did not attend class Tuesday, according to Department of Defense Education Activity records. One Yokosuka teacher said he had a class Tuesday with only three students.
DODEA officials said they were monitoring the situation but were not planning to close any schools as of Tuesday evening, spokesman Charly Hoff told Stars and Stripes.
“We have no interest in closing schools because that would not be good for parents,” he said.
If attendance rates continue to slip, DODEA may consider adjusting bus schedules and other “resource pooling” measures before closing down schools.
“Closing schools is a last resort,” Hoff said.
The American Red Cross from Yokota helped run two staging areas for those waiting for flights out of Japan where they provided hot coffee, snacks, ad-hoc child care and assistance completing the paperwork necessary to leave the country.
“We’re just doing what we can to make people comfortable during the transition,” said Mary Brasiliere, the Red Cross chief at Yokota, which was focused on military evacuation efforts and had yet to be tasked by their counterparts in Japan for assistance.
“I did get a call the other night from a guy in the States who wanted to donate $1 million to the relief efforts,” said Brasiliere. “I happily assisted him with getting in touch with the folks who could help him with that.”
Yokota’s 374th Force Support Squadron was running the staging areas not only for the evacuees but also for the scores of military, government and civilian personnel pouring into Yokota to assist with humanitarian aid and other operations being coordinated here, headquarters for U.S. Forces Japan.
“We’re in good shape,” said Henry “Ziggy” Bazzichi, chief of the community services flight under the 374th FSS. “If we’re short on anything it’s sleep. But this is the kind of stuff we live for.”