Learning from Disaster

A group of MTSU servants see the power of Mother Nature—and the resilience of a people—firsthand.

by Gina K. Logue

The Japanese city of Fukushima Daiichi is still struggling to recover from the massive March 11, 2011, earthquake and resultant tsunami that engulfed the coastal area. Some 16,000 people lost their lives. Thousands more lost their homes and possessions. Fuel meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant compounded the nation’s trauma, creating a societal ripple effect that is lasting long after the last aftershock subsided.

In June, 2012, ten MTSU students witnessed the results of the disaster firsthand. During ten days of debris cleanup and personal service, the MTSU delegation—chosen on the basis of grades and essays—served hot meals, entertained kindergarten children, and learned about disaster-response procedures. (Dr. Doug Heffington, director of the MTSU Global Studies program, led the trip. No MTSU representatives ventured into unsafe areas.)

One of student Caitlyn Mayo’s most poignant memories is that of an orchard owner, who told the students of his determination to sell his succulent peaches, tart cherries, and crisp apples in Tokyo or wherever he can, despite consumer resistance born of fear. Mayo, a senior speech and theatre major from Woodbury, says the farmer refused to resort to laying off his workers, regardless of his economic situation. He told the group, as they snacked on his wares, that he would rather sell his car than get rid of any of his employees.

“He was willing to give up his own stuff to make sure that his workers didn’t have to go without,” Mayo recalls.

Preston Nalls, a senior electronic media communication major from Franklin, intentionally wore a shirt that says “I Love Fukushima” for a brief side trip to Tokyo to gauge public reaction.

“There was a group of businessmen coming back from a bar, and I passed them along the way,” says Nalls. “They were laughing, saying, ‘Why is he wearing a Fukushima shirt?’”

Yet the resilience of the Japanese people was apparent to everyone. Nalls says the survivors are not reminiscing or moping; they’re looking ahead and getting on with their lives.

“The recovery is definitely going to be a long, ongoing process, because the amount of devastation that we saw in the different areas that were really heavily impacted—you cannot imagine unless you’re standing there and see it firsthand,” Mayo says. “The gravity of what you’re looking at is just enormous.”

Mayo remembers seeing a coffee shop in the middle of an empty field, where a town once stood. The restaurant was open for business.

Even amid the overwhelming ongoing struggle the students witnessed, there was time for friendship and laughter. Julie Vandal, a rising junior and organizational communication major from Fayetteville, says her fondest memory is the hospitality of her home-stay family.

“The daughter had already left for school before I woke up in the morning, and she left me a little letter at the breakfast table,” says Vandal. “It’s my most prized possession now. She was just saying, ‘It was great to meet you’ and ‘It was a great experience.’ They were just so nice.”

“I can honestly say that those were the best ten days of my life so far,” says Nalls.

David Schmidt, MTSU’s vice provost of international affairs, who accompanied students on the trip, said “A special student will want to volunteer, and once they do it, it becomes a lifelong practice.”