Mar 212011
Authors: Allison Sylte

Editor’s note: Alex Vitale works for The Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation’s Campus Television.

Ever since the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and over 20-foot tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, Alex Vitale says she has gotten 20 Facebook notifications per day, all from people concerned about her safety.

“They’re from kids I haven’t talked to since elementary school,” Vitale said in an interview with the Collegian over Facebook chat, due to the high expense of making phone calls out of the country.

Vitale is a junior journalism major who is currently studying abroad at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata City, Japan, located about 250 miles south of the quake’s epicenter.

On the day of the earthquake, Vitale said all she felt was a level-three aftershock, something that was not out of the ordinary, and though she knew that the north was hit harder, she didn’t quite grasp the extent of the danger or even give it much thought until she heard about the tsunami.
That’s when the news got worse.

More than 7,000 deaths have been confirmed in the immediate impact zone of the earthquake, with countless more people currently unaccounted for. A nuclear meltdown has led to mass evacuations; blackouts and oil shortages are occurring throughout Japan.

Many of Vitale’s classmates have fled the country, and one lost her entire family in the disaster. Though Vitale doesn’t plan on leaving, she’s still reeling from the far-reaching impact of the tragedy.

“It’s the most frustrating feeling,” Vitale said. “I can’t really describe it. Helplessness, mixed with fear and sadness.”

Lance Corporal David Bearss, a Colorado native and U.S. Marine currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan, is in the midst of planning humanitarian efforts in wake of the disaster, and is bracing to face dangerous levels of radiation from the nuclear meltdown.

“The general mood here is hectic and frantic,” said Bearss, 20, who currently works as a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense specialist. “We have higher knowledge than most of the public, and it’s slightly unsettling with all of the info that is streaming in.”

Despite the bad news coming from up north, Vitale credits the trusting nature of the Japanese people for maintaining her sanity.

“At first I panicked something terrible, but then I looked around and saw all of the Japanese being calm, and I felt a lot better,” Vitale said.

Earthquakes and tsunamis are not things that are particularly unfamiliar to the Japanese people, according to Vitale, so they are more equipped to handle them than other cultures.

But for an American, even the smallest earthquakes provided a bit of a shock.

“They’re definitely different from anything I’ve felt,” Vitale said. “The first one I experienced was about a month ago, and it just felt like a truck driving by our classroom.”

Though Hirakata City didn’t receive any direct damage from the quake, Vitale said that it has, nevertheless, felt the impact, including scheduled blackouts aimed at sending energy to the northern areas of Japan.

“There has been no physical damage, but definitely damage emotionally, “ Vitale said. “In our school computer lab, I can hear four conversations going on, and they’re all about what is happening.”

Bearss has spent 17-hour days planning operations up north, saying that the impending mass evacuation of upward of 90,000 people from the area around the nuclear plant has occupied much of his time.

“I have information that I can’t openly share; however, it may be getting worse out in Japan,” Bearss said. “I can say that a large operation is happening very soon.”

Vitale has spent time since the quake attending classes as usual, and trying to maintain a bit of normalcy, despite the turmoil up north.

She said that she fell in love with Japanese culture when she was young, enchanted by images of kimonos and fancy flags and umbrellas. She became even more interested when she read “Memoirs of a Geisha” as a teenager, and she took multiple Asian philosophy classes at CSU.

What has struck her most since the disaster has been the resilience of the Japanese people.

“They have all experienced tragedy, whether it be natural disaster or something else,” Vitale said. “They understand what needs to be done for their country to bounce back.”

Vitale plans to stay in Japan until her study abroad program ends in early June. She says that the disaster has forever changed her outlook.

“It really makes me think about how quickly we dismiss disaster in the United States when it doesn’t affect us,” Vitale said. “The world is really much closer than we think, you know? Things that are happening Japan affect everyone.”

News Editor Allison Sylte can be reached at

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