How tornado drills helped me survive an earthquake


Katrina Jenkins

Damaged sidewalks in Osaka after the 5.6 magnitude earthquake on June 18, 2018. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

I was in the bathroom when a 5.6 magnitude earthquake occurred in the Kansai region of Japan. It was the worst earthquake the area had seen in the last 20 years. I didn’t know that at the time.

I didn’t know yet that the trains weren’t going to be running out of fear that there was something wrong with the tracks. I didn’t know yet that a 9-year-old girl in a nearby city was going to be killed at her school by a collapsing wall. I didn’t know yet that 2 elderly men were going to be killed by falling debris. I didn’t know yet that hundreds were going to be injured- including a friend who had been in a bus that overturned in Osaka. If I’m being totally honest, I wouldn’t know any of that until my family contacted me later that day to check that I was okay.

I had stumbled out of bed at 7:30 a.m. after having snoozed my last 2 alarms. After spending several years refusing to schedule a morning class before 10 a.m., I was still struggling with my early morning classes at the Japanese university I was studying abroad at. Blearily making my way into the bathroom, I turned on the sink and started to brush my teeth. My faucet made an obnoxious gurgling noise from being turned on to full blast so abruptly, but reluctantly let out my hot water all the same.

The pipes shaking beneath my feet made me roll my eyes. Since most of us had an early morning class, I knew that the majority of the other girls on the floor must also be in their bathrooms getting ready. It wasn’t until the shaking kicked up a notch that I realized that this was actually a new sensation. I had grown up in an old house so, whenever multiple people were using sinks at the same time, the pipes would shake. That wasn’t the case for this Japanese dorm.

There was split second of panic when I finally comprehended the fact that this was an earthquake. A moment when I completely froze, mind absolutely blank. What do you do when an earthquake hit? Where’s the safest place to go? What do I do?

I have lived most of my life in Nebraska- in the region of the United States known as Tornado Alley. This is the area in the heart of the States that has more tornadoes in a year than anywhere else in the world. The sound of tornado sirens going off- whether in actual warning or as a test- were as familiar to me as the sound of trains clacking over the tracks by the river and the bugle call echoing from the Air Force base through my bedroom window only a mile or so away.

Starting in kindergarten, my school safety drills were for fires and for tornadoes. Every kid in my school knew that, when the sirens went on, you got into a single file line and calmly moved to whatever room your class was assigned to go to. We knew how to cover our heads so that our skulls would be protected from debris. We knew how to sit so that we were as low to the ground as possible. For those of us who grew up in the Alley, those things were more than just knowledge to us- they were second nature.

It was that training that helped me know what to do. Throwing my toothbrush into the holder as my bottle of soap fell to the floor, I threw myself out of the bathroom and into the doorway between my closet and my bedroom. Just like the basement was the safest place in a house to go during a tornado, the doorway was the safest place to stand during an earthquake. Standing there with an arm hanging on to each side of the frame, I watched with wide eyes as everything in my room began to vibrate.

The earthquake hadn’t lasted longer than 30 seconds. After everything had gone still, my phone began blaring with emergency alerts. I could hear my roommates stepping outside their rooms and one girl running up and down the hall screaming, “What do we do?!” 

Taking a deep, I marched over to my door, and threw it open. “Hey!” I barked, and then winced. It seemed that spending so much time around military people because my best friend was a military brat had an effect I didn’t expect. Once I had Tiffany’s attention, I had asked her, “Are you hurt?” 

“No,” she answered, eyes wide. “I just haven’t been in an earthquake before.”

“As long as you’re not hurt and nothing is broken, I’m gonna say you’re good. Just go finish getting ready.” I had no idea if we were still going to have school today, but we had a quiz in our language class that none of us could afford to miss so it was better to be safe than sorry. After all, our school day hadn’t ended once the sirens stopped. “I’m going to finish getting changed and then I’ll head downstairs and make sure everyone else is okay.”

Tiffany had just stared at me. “How are you so calm right now?”

Calm was such a strong word and one I didn’t think really applied to me. I was just doing what I knew- and apparently the skills that I had thought would only be helpful while living in the Midwest were actually transferable when facing other challenges in the real world. Instead of imparting that particular piece of wisdom though, all I told her was, “I’m from Nebraska,” before heading back to my room.