Joyful greetings at airport for families reunited after Japanese earthquake

March 16, 2011

By Lynette Kalsnes

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(WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes)
Nick Nowak and his mother, Pamela Stewart, beam as they're reunited. He was teaching in Japan when the quake hit.

O'Hare International Airport's is the scene of joyful homecomings as people return from Japan. Pamela Stewart and her family carried a homemade welcome sign as they waited for her son, Nick Nowak, to arrive. He's 26, and was teaching English in Japan to elementary school children when the quake hit. "It's just overwhelming," Pamela Stewart said. "I am grateful that he is alive and he is well, and I can't wait to see him." Her husband, Brad, said, "It's been brutal, more so for her because that's her little baby. Anybody that has kids knows, the eight hours we didn't know if he was alive was, that was crazy, I don't wish that on anybody.

Nowak was teaching and living in the Southern Ibaraki prefecture, which is located about 150 miles from the hardest hit areas in Northeast Japan. Nowak said he's still in shock, and is also worried about friends in Japan. He was considering recontracting with the company who sent him to Japan to teach, but “this kind of threw everything away for the time being. Upon arrival, Nowak himself said, "It's nice not having earthquakes, because I was really getting sick and tired of them. The aftershocks just really would not stop. So it's nice to be on stable ground for once."

Melissa Popoff is originally from Texas, but was living in Japan with her two young children while her husband was stationed in the Kanagawa Prefecture, about 200 miles from the site impacts. She explained that she was actually preparing to leave Japan, but after the earthquake created major instablities at the Daiichi power plant, her husband told her to go back to the U.S. out of concern for potential radiation exposure. He is scheduled to stay in Japan until June, “And I think part of me isn’t really going to be here fully until my husband gets back,” he noted.

But some residents of Japan, like Yuho Kokubu are arriving in the U.S. uncertain they should have left in the first place. No matter their different experiences, Nowak, Popoff, and Kokubu all said that they had no idea the extent to which the earthquake, resulting tsunami, and damage to the Daiichi plant had devastated Japan until they returned to the United States. “I stayed calm for my kids, but deep down inside, I didn’t even know what to expect…until I got on the internet and started reading everything," explained Popoff.

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