Southern Adventist University student Ashley Uyeda woke up Friday morning and headed to take a midterm exam, not knowing that an earthquake and tsunami had devastated the country where she was raised and her mother still lives.
"I didn't know what was going on," said the 23-year-old nursing student who just returned from Japan on Monday.
Hundreds were dead or missing in Japan on Friday, following one of the largest earthquakes in the country's history and the accompanying tsunami, according to The Associated Press. The quake, which hit about 12:45 a.m. EST, was centered off the northeast coast of Japan, close to the city of Sendai.
Uyeda, who was born in the United States but raised in Japan, said she got an e-mail from her sister at 1:30 a.m. Friday, saying they were fine and not to worry, but she didn't read it until past 10 a.m., after she had taken her exam.
Her siblings - a sister and brother - also live in the United States but are visiting their mother in Chiba, Japan, said Uyeda. Chiba is a district in the Tokyo area about 250 miles south of Sendai.
On Friday, her family had been visiting Shinjuku, another district in Tokyo, and were on their way back when the quake hit.
"We were on the bus on the way back to Chiba when earthquake happened," her sister wrote in the e-mail. "The Aqualine [a toll highway crossing Tokyo Bay] was closed and we had to return to Shinjuku."
If Japanese and other foreign nationals from the Pacific are stranded in the United States due to the earthquakes and tsunami devastation, they may have up to 30 additional days past their authorized stay.
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
In Soddy-Daisy, Ernestine Perkey was glued to the television since her son, James Hughes, called her at 1:30 a.m. saying he was fine. Hughes, 28, a graduate of Soddy-Daisy High School, has been in Japan since August teaching English.
"He kept trying to call me but it kept cutting in and out," she said. "He just [said] 'OK, earthquake,' and the phone went dead."
He wrote on Facebook that he abruptly halted his class Friday when minor tremors shook his fourth-floor classroom in Chiba.
"I made a joke then suddenly my managers told me to run to the nearest hallway," Hughes wrote. "I felt like I was on 90 roller coasters at once. It lasted about four minutes and then we went outside."
After the earthquake, Hughes said he went to a nearby restaurant and began contacting family at home in the U.S. He said he couldn't find a hotel or taxi and trains weren't working.
"Looking for options to get to apartment now, but by the grace of Jesus I'm fine," he wrote.
"It's horrific," said Perkey. "I can't imagine what the people are going through, what he's going through."
Chattanooga resident Hilary Bissonette has been using Facebook to communicate with her brother Jared, who also teaches English in Japan.
U.S. CITIZENS IN JAPAN
The Department of State has set up a consular task force to respond to concerns about specific U.S. citizens:
- For U.S. citizens in Japan, send an e-mail to email@example.com.
- For U.S. citizens in the tsunami zone overseas but outside Japan, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Or by phone at 1-888-407-4747
Source: U.S. Department of State
"After I heard what happened last night, I hopped on Facebook and posted a message," she said Friday.
Jared, a UTC graduate, lives on the coast in southern Japan, his sister said.
"Wasn't even close enough to feel it, but the nearby beach area is on alert for tidal waves. I'm not sure it'll be an issue here, though. So far, no problem." Jared, 25, responded at about 3:30 a.m.
There are several Japanese companies in the Chattanooga area, including Komatsu and Denso Manufacturing in Athens, Tenn.
Officials at both companies said there have not been any reports of any employee's family being directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami and that their headquarters in Japan were not impacted and production hadn't been halted.
U.S. Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs, said in a news release that the government knows there are thousands of American citizens who either live in Japan or are visiting there at any given time, but as of 5 p.m. Friday they hadn't received any reports of U.S. citizens killed or injured.
"Our embassy and our consulates in Japan are working to obtain information on the status of U.S. citizens and to provide assistance as necessary," she said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is closely monitoring the effects of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami "and stand ready to support state and local response operations if needed," according to a news release.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has issued tsunami warnings and watches for a number of countries, including parts of U.S. territories in the Pacific as well as coastal areas along California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.
And the Department of State issued a travel alert strongly urging U.S. citizens to avoid tourism and nonessential travel to Japan.
For Perkey and Uyeda, one of the greatest problems in communicating with their loved ones is that cell phone batteries are dying and there's no way to get around since trains are not running.
"I'm just worried and scared," said Uyeda. "I don't know what's going to happen next."