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Military responded quickly to quake, tsunami warning, USFJ officials say

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — U.S. Forces Japan officials say the military reacted swiftly to monitor and get the word out about the Nov. 15 deep-sea earthquake off Japan’s northeast coast and subsequent tsunami warning.

USFJ executed a notification process to installation commanders that’s routinely practiced in exercises and is continually evaluated, said Col. John Vernon, deputy director of J3 Operations.

“The underlying message is we were ready,” he said. “We executed according to plan. We were able to notify people based on the systems we had put in place and exercises we had conducted leading up to this.”

The 8.1-magnitude quake struck deep under the Pacific Ocean near the Kuril islands, about 1,000 miles northeast of Tokyo. Waves initially forecast at almost 6 feet for some eastern Pacific coastal areas of Japan never materialized. The highest wave measured at Hachinohe, south of Misawa, after the earthquake was 23 inches.

Emergency action controllers, who are on duty 24/7 at the USFJ command center at Yokota Air Base, received word of the tsunami alert almost immediately from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, Vernon said.

A conference call with installation command centers was completed within nine minutes of notification, Vernon said. USFJ also set up a response cell that quickly linked communications with Japan’s Joint Staff Office in Tokyo to monitor the situation.

“Having personally been in the command center about 10 minutes after we were notified and being part of the response cell that oversaw last week’s tsunami warning, I thought it went extremely well,” he said. “The cooperation … with the Japanese to exchange information, the dialogue with the installation commanders at the senior leadership level happened very, very rapidly.”

The word was slower to trickle down to some off-base residents in Misawa, who weren’t tuned into the local American Forces Network television channel or radio station.

The topic was raised at a civilian’s call Monday with Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella, 35th Fighter Wing and Misawa base commander. Bob Smith, a flight chief with 35th Services Squadron who lives about a mile from the coast in Shimoda, said he and another friend who lives closer to the beach didn’t hear about the tsunami warning until the next day.

Angelella said a telephone recall was not ordered because of the 16-inch-maximum waves forecast for the Misawa area. On a day-to-day basis, the waves can be 10 to 15 feet in the ocean, he said.

But, he added, he’s since talked to Misawa city Mayor Shigeyoshi Suzuki about using the city’s public address system to pass along alerts in English.

City officials said last week they were developing a plan on how to notify both the base and Americans living in the city in an emergency but couldn’t say when they would have it finished.

The city’s network of loudspeakers was used to warn people of the tsunami, city officials said, but in Japanese only.

Bill Bunch, an Air Force retiree, said even if announcements were in Japanese, Americans would likely be able to pick out the Japanese word “tsunami.” But Bunch, who lives outside the commissary gate in Misawa, said he never heard the loudspeaker near his house go off.

Announcements were made about every five minutes, said city official Satoshi Tate, but in some areas of the city the loudspeaker broadcasts are faint. That’s why the city also notified people via cable television, he said.

Bunch said an alert flashed on all the Japanese channels, even the satellite-fed ones.

“I’d like to hear it first on the loudspeaker system,” he said.

Smith said that he still would have liked to have known about the tsunami warning, despite the 16-inch-maximum wave prediction. But he thinks in a real emergency, his Japanese neighbors would inform him.

“The farmers are very nice to us. I know they’ll let us know,” he said.

In the future, it’s hoped that base commanders will be able to pass alerts through an off-base commander’s access channel, Vernon said. American Forces Radio and Television Services is working on this initiative for “the relatively near future,” he said.

But once in place, it won’t “by any means be a cure-all,” Vernon added. Off-base residents also shoulder some responsibility and need to take steps to be prepared for emergencies, he said. With the potential for earthquakes in Japan, families need to be vigilant, he said.

“There should be some thought to an evacuation route,” he said. “How do we get there? Where do we meet? Those may sound trivial but very important when minutes matter.”

Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.


Be prepared for an earthquake

U.S. Forces Japan officials say that Americans living in earthquake-prone Japan can and should be prepared by stocking up on supplies and taking time to make an emergency evacuation plan. Here are their tips:

¶ Keep on hand nonperishable food, water, batteries, first-aid supplies — “things that would sustain them for a limited period of time,” said Col. John Vernon, USFJ deputy director of J3 Operations.

¶ Keep a battery-powered radio in order to hear updates from American Forces Network in case of a power outage and know which station to listen to.

¶ Make a plan: Discuss with one’s family where to evacuate to or meet in an emergency; know how to contact one another.

¶ Be aware of the potential hazards in one’s surroundings. If you live near the beach, for example, know how the local community will get the word out to its citizens in an emergency, Vernon says.

Air Force retiree Bill Bunch, long-time Japan resident, notes that many popular Misawa-area campsites are located on or near the coast. Some beach campsites have automated warning signs. At Fudai Beach in Iwate Prefecture just south of Hachinohe there are 30-foot-high berms with concrete and steel sliding doors, said Bunch in an e-mail.

Bunch suggests how someone should react during these emergencies:

“When the loudspeakers wail, it is time to leave. Leave the tent and drive towards the gates. If they are already closed by the time you get there, then leave the car below and get yourself and family up and over the top by climbing one of the many metal ladders.”

— Jennifer H. Svan


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