CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — So it really wasn’t a luxurious paid vacation after all.
Most of the nearly 10,000 military family members who left disaster-stricken Japan under the Department of Defense-sponsored voluntary evacuation in March and April dispersed across the United States to unassuming towns and cities such as Vernal, Utah, and Yukon, Okla., according to data released Tuesday by U.S. Forces Japan. Others gravitated to military towns such as San Diego; Norfolk, Va.; and Jacksonville, Fla., but there appears to be little evidence to support suspicions raised by some military community members that many evacuees were taking paid vacations on the government’s dime to Waikiki or Disney World.
Only 160 evacuees took shelter in Hawaii and 61 went to Orlando, Fla., out of 9,720 military dependents who fled Japan during the nuclear crisis that followed the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the USFJ evacuee statistics show.
The Defense Department authorized the paid evacuations for spouses and children in mid-March as the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant teetered on the edge of meltdown and fear of nuclear radiation spread throughout U.S. bases in Japan.
Frightened mothers and fathers with children and suitcases in tow boarded military-chartered flights from Yokota Air Base, Misawa Air Base and Naval Air Facility Atsugi to safe havens in the United States.
Once in the U.S., each evacuee was entitled to paid lodging and meals as well as a daily stipend and a $25 daily family travel allowance.
The amount of paid expenses could be drastically different depending on where evacuees chose to take shelter. For example, a mother, teen and child under 12 could have received a maximum of $9,795 for a month in Grand Forks, N.D., but the same family would have been entitled to a maximum of $21,975 for a month in Honolulu.
The total cost of the evacuations will not be known until after the school year, Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said, because families who returned to the U.S. and enrolled their children in school will be allowed to remain there through the end of the school year. Lainez explained that after the initial 30 days from the evacuation, the money provided to dependents decreases for those 12 and older to 60% of the original cost-of-living allowance, and for those under 12, up to 30% of original rate.
During the evacuation, resentment grew in military communities over the hefty reimbursements and rumors that some evacuees had felt safe in Japan but left to take advantage of a “paid vacation.” But it appears that most of those who fled chose familiar locations over vacation destinations.
The most popular safe haven by far was San Diego, Calif. More than 700 evacuees — nearly all Navy families — went to the city that is the home port of the Pacific Fleet, according to data listed by city, state and service branch.
Jacksonville, another Navy town, was also highly popular and attracted 223 evacuees, nearly all of them from the Navy. The entire state of Hawaii received fewer evacuees than San Antonio, Texas — home to Lackland Air Force Base and other military installations — where 173 military dependents took shelter.
Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco also ranked among the 10 most popular destinations for evacuees.
Meanwhile, thousands of family members fled in small groups to cities and towns far from any beaches, casinos or amusements parks.
They went to communities scattered across all 50 states and U.S. territories, such as Powell in northern Wyoming, which is home to just 5,300 residents. In March and April, it grew by one evacuated family member, who had taken the DOD up on its offer of a trip out of Japan. Six evacuees chose the chilly destination of Grand Forks.
Las Vegas ranked as the 9th most-popular destination, where 105 evacuees headed. While it is true that Las Vegas is home to Nellis Air Force Base, more than half the evacuees who traveled to the gambling mecca were the families of sailors.
More than 700 evacuees chose countries outside the U.S. as their evacuation destinations, including one who headed for the beach resort of Pattaya, Thailand.
Stars and Stripes reporter Kevin Baron contributed to this report.