OAHU, Hawaii — As Kelly Tomioka sat on the porch that wrapped around her green, plantation-style home outside Honolulu, the Pacific Ocean seemed far away.
Tomioka, a mother of two and a host mother of more than 100 exchange students over the years, was happy for this. The most recent students under her care, two teenage girls from Sendai, Japan, had seen enough of the Pacific when it tore through their homes and school just weeks earlier. It may seem strange, going to an island to avoid an ocean, Tomokia admitted, but there was still plenty to take in without going to the beach.
Families of chickens roamed the side garden and front yard, the rooster patriarchs crowing no matter the time of day. A large, colorful parrot named Picasso climbed along the yard’s chain link fence, rattling it as he made his way to the front porch to snack on peanuts and grapes. Behind the house, taro farmers tended to their crop, harvesting the leaves and roots for some of Hawaii’s most popular local dishes.
This was three years ago, the early part of summer 2011, and I was in Hawaii looking for how a state with such strong ties to Japan was dealing with the aftermath of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake that rocked the region. The March 11 earthquake, and the tsunami it created, killed 15,883 people, injured 6,150, and collapsed 129,225 buildings. The tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the largest incident of its kind since Chernobyl.
The girls experienced the disaster first-hand, and were in Hawaii to get away from it. “We don’t take them to the ocean,” Tomioka said on the porch. “We don’t talk about it. We don’t expose them to news stories or anything that could be a trigger or reminder. We try to put more seeds of joy in their life.”
As one of those triggers, I was only permitted to visit the Tomiokas while the girls were shopping in Honolulu. A squeak of a bus breaking at the end of the driveway indicated that the plan would not go as smoothly as we hoped.
The girls were home early.
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