TOKYO - When an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck the island nation of Japan, it was an experience Dr. Lauren Eastwood will never forget.
Eastwood, an assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, was visiting Tokyo with a friend when the earthquake ripped through the country March 11. The two were touring the Imperial Palace when the solid ground turned into something that felt "like being on a ship in rough waters."
The experience of the earthquake itself was one that caused a mixture of shock and awe, Eastwood said.
"[It was] truly amazing and frightening to feel as though the ground is completely undulating underneath you to the extent that it is difficult to stand," she said. "Luckily we were out in the open, but the office buildings were visibly swaying."
That particular area of Tokyo had experienced much building construction in the last 30 years, Eastwood said, resulting in buildings being up to code regarding earthquake safety.
"There was very little structural damage where I was," Eastwood said. "A portion of the roof of one of the palace buildings fell off, but the tile is very old, so I didn't think that things were as bad as they were."
"I think this is part of the reason I didn't realize how much damage the quake had caused in other areas," she added.
There was no warning for the event, as far as Eastwood could tell.
"I didn't hear any sirens or anything until after the quake," she said, adding the city's earthquake warning system, ironically, was being tested at the airport when she arrived two days before the quake.
"So, I had thought about the possibility of an earthquake - but mostly in passing," she said
Though a cataclysmic event that has resulted in a death toll in the thousands, the reaction of the general public during the quake where Eastwood was visiting was one of "controlled chaos," she said.
"The Japanese society is very disciplined and orderly, which absolutely helps in situations such as this," Eastwood said, adding it was "very clear" people had been trained how to respond to an earthquake. "The high-rise office buildings were evacuated very quickly - even before the second quake hit."
Most people Eastwood saw had disaster kit backpacks that contained hard hats and appeared to be going to specified meeting places.
"My friend and I didn't know exactly what was going on, so we began to walk since the public transportation was shut down completely," Eastwood said. "People were trying to use cell phones, but they weren't working. Also, the public phones were down as well."
In a city of 14 million people, where most rely on public transportation, the lack of trains made things "very complicated" with millions ending up walking home from work, she said.
"I walked about 30 kilometers," said Eastwood, who headed from Imperial Palace to Kichijoji, the suburb of Tokyo where she was staying. "It took me almost seven hours - and I was not alone ... It was more crowded than I could ever imagine, and at one point I was being moved along by the crowd without the capacity to change my direction even if I had wanted to. That was a little frightening."
When Eastwood got back to where she was staying, it was then she first saw the resulting damage reported on the news.
Though Eastwood was expected to be back in the U.S. by the time this newspaper went to print, before she left, she shared the event was "a frightening experience" but she was "very impressed with how well prepared the Japanese are for this sort of disaster."
"It is clear that the magnitude of the quake was extreme, and there was significant damage that is still unfolding," she said. "However, there would have been much more devastation if people hadn't been so well prepared."