Americans near Sendai frustrated by evacuation delays
By CHARLIE REED | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 17, 2011
SENDAI, Japan — While the U.S. began preparations to evacuate tens of thousands of its citizens out of Japan to hedge against possible radiation exposure, American Richard Meres and his family had to rely on the South Africans just to get out this tsunami devastated region.
“I’ve been calling the (U.S.) Embassy frantically for three days,” Meres said Thursday at the Miyagi prefectural headquarters building in Sendai.
For other Americans living in Japan, word came that the State and Defense Departments would evacuate any family members wishing to leave the country. By late Thursday afternoon, four U.S. military bases — Yokosuka Naval Base, Camp Zama, Misawa Air Base, and Naval Air Facility Atsugi — had told families to start preparing for flights as early as Thursday night. And embassy officials from Australia, New Zealand and South Korea have been visible in and around Sendai coordinating transportation for those wanting to leave.
But Meres had yet to hear if U.S. officials were going to provide transportation for those Americans who wanted out of Sendai — 70 miles north of the failing nuclear site in Fukushima and just six miles west of the tsunami-ravaged coast.
“It’s so frustrating,” said Meres, a native of Maine who has taught English in Japan for the last 13 years. “Our Russian neighbors got out a few days ago on a bus from the Russian government.”
While looking for ways out, he heard that the South African government had room on its bus bound for Tokyo.
“We’re in a position to help,” said Thomas Cronje, from the South African embassy in Tokyo. He arrived in Sendai Thursday with a charter bus to pick up 12 South African English teachers, though only four took the option.
That left room for people like Meres and his family.
“We’re very grateful,” he said as he loaded his family onto the bus outside the prefecture headquarters building in the city center.
The risk of radiation exposure was the main factor driving Meres out of town, he said, though the family’s supply of food, diapers and other supplies was also running out. Meres said his apartment building had power but the elevator still wasn’t running, and living on the 26th floor with two small children was becoming increasingly difficult.
As for Cronje, he was planning to return to Sendai in the next few days with 50-man crew and tons of equipment and supplies to assist in the rescue efforts.
“I had the option to go back to South Africa but I didn’t take it,” he said. “I know if this kind of disaster happened in my country, the Japanese would be the last ones to leave.”
About the time Meres and his family were getting on the bus in Sendai, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo was posting a message on its website, saying it had arranged for over 600 seats on buses for transportation from Sendai City Hall to Tokyo.
The first buses were to depart at 9 a.m. Friday.
Iain Campbell (left), an education coordinator for the city of Sendai, was still helping arrange transportation out of the area and country for some 70 junior English teachers he supervises on March 17, 2011. Many of the teachers, most in their 20s, were leaving Japan at the behest of their parents, he said. Campbell, a Vermont native who has lived in Japan 13 years, said he would not contemplate leaving until he knew the young educators found transportation. As for him: ''I'm in wait-and-see mode.''
NATHAN A. BAILEY/STARS AND STRIP