Air Force spouse, children recall evacuation following Japan earthquake

  • Published
  • By Scott King
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
The date, March 11, 2011, will never be forgotten by many people. It was the day that a 8.9-magnitude earthquake hit Japan and a day that started the motions for an Air Force family to make a decision to evacuate to Spokane, Wash., or stay and risk their newborn baby's health.

The choice for them was relatively easy, they decided to evacuate -- at least partially.

Mrs. Jenevra Watkins, along with sons Quintus, 3 months old, and Antonio, 9, left their husband and father, Tech. Sgt. Aaron Watkins behind at Misawa Air Base, Japan, bound for Spokane and under the watch of staff from Fairchild AFB's Airman Family and Readiness Center.

"It was 2:45 in the afternoon when our lives changed," Mrs. Watkins said. "My husband had just gotten off an 18-hour shift and I was on the phone talking with a friend when it hit. It was like being on a boat in high seas, but with no water. We grabbed Quintus and went outside. We didn't know what else to do -- it just wouldn't stop."

Two days prior to the "big one," Mrs. Watkins said they experienced a 7.0 and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake and everyone was getting restless.

"I could feel it on my body -- something big was coming," she said. "Even the animals were acting weird. The locals were telling us to get money and have food stocked and clothes packed. I put it out on my Facebook to my friends to do the same. As it turned out, some of my friends listened and that night our family and five other families were huddled together in the only house near us with running water -- but at least we had money, food and clothes."

Her son Antonio didn't quite know how he felt about the earthquake.

"I was signing in at the youth center when the shaking started," Antonio said. "It was creepy. It felt like a rollercoaster and I heard loud bangs. They told us to get under cover so I got under the pool table. I kind of wanted it to stop, but it was kind of fun too."

In the following days, Mrs. Watkins said Misawa AB was running at about 30 percent electricity. They were using the base gym to shower and the chow hall was running on generators, but was open to all for food and drinks.

Then the news started trickling in about problems at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, a little more than 200 hundred miles from the base.

"The base commander was keeping everyone informed about the aftermath, efforts to start clean up and the developing problems with the nuclear plant," Mrs. Watkins said. "In one of the meetings he told us that the Department of State had authorized a voluntary departure of families on March 17 -- it was then Aaron and I started making our plans."

Several factors played into their decision; first and foremost was the looming nuclear threat and the health of their newborn baby, Quintus. He has fluid on his kidney and was actually supposed to undergo a "voiding cystourethrogram" and an ultrasound in the coming days. In addition to that, base resources were running low and they were also experiencing rolling blackouts during cold weather. On the advice of the medical staff and the uncertain situation -- they decided it was time to go.

"I didn't want them to leave, but I knew it would be for the best," said Sergeant Watkins, a 35th Security Forces Squadron unit deployment manager at Misawa AB. "There were too many uncertainties that remained here following the earthquake and tsunami. I wanted to ensure the safety and security of my family."

Mrs. Watkins and her two sons started outprocessing at Misawa AB March 18. They boarded a chartered plane March 22 bound for Seattle.

"I was very impressed on how quickly and smoothly the Air Force got us out of there," she said. "It was sort of like a deployment line my husband would go through. We were on the first plane out, and it was full of babies, children and mothers -- I did not feel alone."

Her father drove from Spokane to pick them up in Seattle and they drove back talking about their experience back in Japan.

After settling in her parent's house in the Spokane Valley, they made their way to the Fairchild AFRC where Christopher Marble, the director of the AFRC, welcomed them and ensured they would be taken care of.

"We are taking care of 33 evacuated families throughout the Northwest," Mr. Marble said.

"I feel privileged to be a part of the Fairchild AFB team; that I get to work with great professionals and provide service to Airman and their families. Mrs. Watkins is one of many tremendous stories that surfaced during this Japan crisis. I am very pleased that we were selected to provide family support in the Northwest to the Japan evacuees."

The AFRC helps families affected and/or scattered by a wide-spread catastrophic event through the Air Force Personnel Accountability and Assessment System; which is a standardized method for the Air Force to account, manage and monitor the recovery and reconstitution process for personnel and their families.

With the exception of them still "feeling" the earthquake here, the Watkins family is doing pretty well. Quintus has been seen by doctors and is doing better. Antonio is enrolled in school and Mrs. Watkins is in the process of getting proper documentation so they can reunite with Aaron back in Japan at the end of the school year.

"Aaron is taking leave this month sometime to come here and visit us," Mrs. Watkins said. "He has been working endless hours in clean up, but is slowly getting back to normal operations. We can't wait to see him -- we miss him a lot."

Sergeant Watkins feels the same way about his family back in Spokane.

"I have a tight group of friends here who sent their families back as well," he said. "We get together on weekends to barbecue and discuss our thoughts, which help everyone cope with loneliness. It's not easy having your family away as you stay behind. It's almost like a reverse deployment -- I now know how it feels to wait at home for loved ones to return."