Canon Purdy was in the town of Minamisanriku in the Miyaga Prefecture along the northeast coast of Japan when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck on March 11.
Purdy was there to attend the graduation of middle school students at a school where she had taught English the previous two years. She was at the school, located up in a mountainous area of the town, when the quake hit.
After the ground stopped shaking, a tsunami warning alarm sounded.
“Twenty minutes later I went out, and the school has a view of the whole middle of the town, and it was basically all covered with water,” Purdy said.
The school escaped major damage from the quake and flooding and became an evacuation center in the area, she said.
Purdy was safe but had no way to contact her family back in the Bay Area–that was, until her sister used the power of social media to track her down.
Purdy’s sister, Megan Walsh, used the microblogging website Twitter to send messages to various reporters who she had seen had gone to the area following the disaster.
NBC News’ Ann Curry happened to be in the area and told Walsh she would try to find her. Curry went to the school, but Purdy had walked to another evacuation center to try to find some other people she knew.
However, Curry talked to acquaintances of Purdy’s–who were able to meet up with her shortly afterward–and showed the emotional first contact between her and her family on a national newscast.
“I had basically given up hope of contacting anyone until cell service was restored,” Purdy said. “It’s amazing that someone was able to find me. It was definitely a big surprise.”
The heartwarming story was one of the few to come out of the area, though.
Thousands of people in the town have been reported dead or missing, including Taylor Anderson, a friend of Purdy’s who was the first American confirmed to have died in the disaster.
As for the town itself, “pretty much it was all destroyed,” Purdy said.
Many of Purdy’s belongings, including her passport, were in a home destroyed by the tsunami, but she was eventually able to get to Tokyo and get the proper paperwork to fly back to the U.S.
She landed in San Francisco last week and has since been busy with a non-profit organization that she and her family created to help raise money for people affected by the disaster.
The organization, Save Miyagi, is targeting education because that was what Purdy was so involved with while she was there. She said she has already talked to officials in the area about what the schools need and plans to maybe return to the area in the summer with the money she has raised.
The nonprofit’s website, www.savemiyagi.org, also has links to other aid organizations helping Japan, and a list of events in the Bay Area and elsewhere for people who want to help out.
“I just hope people will stay interested, and will still be interested in visiting Japan,” Purdy said. “I’m definitely hopeful for the future for them, and think they’ll be able to rebuild.”
Dan McMenamin, Bay City News