Mattituck alum in Japan doing OK

PHOTO COURTESY OF ELLEN BIRKMIER | Gary Grossenbacher (left) with a friend in Japan, where the Mattituck High School graduate is a teacher. Family and friends were relieved to hear from him after the earthquake that struck Japan Friday.

By fate, Gary Grossenbacher is no stranger to natural disasters and severe weather, so those who know the 47-year-old 1982 Mattituck High School graduate might not be surprised to know that he’s in Japan.

The good news for his family and friends is that he’s safe, living in Kaminoyama City, about 125 miles away from the epicenter of the 9.0 earthquake that struck just off the northeast coast Friday afternoon.

On a previous stay in Japan, he was about 10 miles from the epicenter of the 6.0 Great Hanshin Earthquake on Jan. 17, 1995.

“The building rocked in all directions, the dresser drawers flew open and slammed shut, lamps fell over and the CRT TV crashed to the floor,” he recalled. He’s also experienced smaller earthquakes living in Fukuoka on Kuyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan.

Mr. Grossenbacher has weathered hurricanes and nor’easters growing up on Eastern Long Island and brutal winters when he was studying hotel and resort management at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He had to be evacuated from Hilton Head, S.C., in September 1989 when Hurricane Hugo struck.

Today, Mr. Grossenbacher teaches English at Yamagata Commercial High School, in Kaminoyama City, which has more than 700 students in three grades. School was closed at the time the earthquake struck and hasn’t yet reopened.

No students from the school have been reported missing, injured or dead, but time may change that. On the day of the quake, some students had taken the train to Sendai, about 50 miles west of the school, to celebrate a day off, Mr. Grossenbacher said. Downtown Sendai was devastated by the tsunami that followed the quake.

Another student was reported to have been in Ishinomaki on the coast of Miyagi visiting an older brother. The brothers went to the roof of a building to escape the tsunami, according to a relative they phoned. But the phone connection died and it took days before the teachers finally received word that the boys were safe.

As of Monday, Mr. Grossenbacher was staying at the school and expecting it might reopen by the end of this week. But he’d been told that he would be unable to use the school’s network for e-mails or telephone calls after Monday.

“We can’t leave the building, we can’t call out, we can’t receive calls and we can’t e-mail,” he wrote in an e-mail received early Tuesday morning. He advised family and friends to use his personal e-mail address instead of the school’s.

Where Mr. Grossenbacher is located, the earthquake was recorded as a 5 on the Richter scale, lasting for two to three minutes and “the school building shook violently,” breaking many windows. But there was no structural damage, he said.

In the immediate aftermath, Mr. Grossenbacher was allowed to visit, inspect and stay at his home. Some objects had fallen, he reported, but nothing had broken. However, electricity was out for 30 hours.

“An insignificant inconvenience in the big picture,” he wrote.

“God is good,” a relieved Carolyn Senatore, Mr. Grossenbacher’s mother, said from her home in Bradenton, Fla. There are mountain ranges between her son and the areas hardest hit by the quake and tsunami, she said. Ms. Senatore was born in Mattituck and also graduated from Mattituck High School.

“The major quake was much stronger than I ever imagined could occur up here,” Mr. Grossenbacher said. The tsunami went about five miles inland, he said.

Gas stations have no fuel and those stores that are open have little stock on their shelves, he said. He has enough gasoline to get back and forth to school for about two weeks once classes resume.

“All store shelves have been cleared of batteries, portable gas canisters, bread, toilet paper, all kinds of ready-made foods and other emergency supplies,” he said.

“I’ll start riding my bike to work, about seven miles each way, on nice days, then after some conditioning, I can start running,” he said. “Maybe it will help me to achieve a goal which has eluded me every year since 2001 — to finish the Honolulu Marathon in under four hours.”

Despite the lack of structural damage in his area, “Daily life will be impacted because of transport system stoppage and electricity rationing,” he said. He experiences rolling blackouts resulting from reduced capacity because 10 nuclear reactors had been taken off line.

He is about 100 kilometers, about 62 miles, away form the stricken nuclear power plant in Fukushima and about the same distance from the Onagawa plant, he said.

“There’s almost no chance that I’d be affected by a nuclear accident,” he said. “I’m not overly worried about my personal safety now or in the worst case scenario,” he said.

There have been hundreds of aftershocks, but most haven’t been discernible where he is. He and his colleagues have felt about 20 so far. On Monday afternoon, one lasted at least 10 seconds and “shook the school building enough to make us jittery,” he said.

Once the search and rescue operation concludes, Mr. Grossenbacher plans to volunteer to help in the cleanup and rebuilding. A sister city of Kaminoyama, directly to the east of where he lives, was hit pretty hard, he said.

If there’s anything positive that can come from such a disaster, Mr. Grossenbacher said he hoped Americans have learned how Japanese value and preserve “wa,” their word for harmony, and that Japanese will come to more fully understand the extreme generosity of Americans.

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