Roanoke College

Roanoke College alumnus experiences aftermath of quake and tsunami in Japan

  • Roanoke College alumnus experiences aftermath of quake and tsunami in Japan

  • 03/31/11

  • The destruction left in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan has touched many members of the Roanoke College community from a distance, through newspaper reports, television footage and online video.

    But for several, the tragedy has resonated in much closer proximity.

    Capt. Michael Tyson, a 2006 graduate of Roanoke College, is with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. The U.S. Marine Corps unit is working with the Japanese Self Defense Force to conduct humanitarian assistance missions off the northeast coast of Japan as part of Operation Tomodachi.

    Tyson and his wife Megan, also a 2006 graduate of the College, are based in Okinawa, one of Japan's southern prefectures. A helicopter pilot, Capt. Tyson is among helicopter crews that are flying humanitarian aid supplies, including blankets and fresh water, to the region most severely impacted by the quake and tsunami. The crews also conducted aerial surveys of 200 miles of affected coastline and identified isolated communities in the area that may be in need of further assistance.

    In an e-mail, Capt. Tyson said he had not seen the city of Sendai, the city closest to the quake's epicenter, but had flown around the areas north of Sendai. "Anything within about a half-mile of shore at sea level has been wiped out," he said. "There are large boats sitting in the middle of towns and overturned tractor trailers. The most noticeable part is trash and debris scattered everywhere."


    But Tyson said the Japanese infrastructure is solid enough that clean-up has begun in affected areas. Debris has been pushed into neat piles, allowing people access to roads and other essential areas, he said.

    "You can tell by their clean-up efforts how much resolve and determination the Japanese people have," Tyson said. "It's actually pretty impressive and gives me a higher level of respect for them."

    This is Tyson's second experience with disaster relief. Last fall, his unit performed humanitarian aid/disaster relief after Super Typhoon Megi struck northern Philippines.

    Participating in an actual operation is motivating in itself, Tyson said. "But knowing you are directly affecting people's lives is rewarding," he said. "Every time we've landed the locals get their cameras out and start taking pictures. It must be interesting for them to have a big ugly gray helicopter with MARINES written on the side landing in their backyard."

    Megan Tyson works as the Family Readiness Officer for Marine Wing Support Group 17 in Okinawa. As FRO, she provides official command information and two-way communication, resource and referral services, and deployment and readiness support. She also serves as the liaison for commanding officers to families.

    "It's an incredibly rewarding position to work with Marines, sailors and families ensuring they have the readiness and deployment support they need," she said in an e-mail. "Although I'm not a Marine, I'm honored to help serve our military community and I hope I'm helping families get the information they need to make life a little easier."

    To read more about the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and to see photos of the destruction the unit has encountered, visit or on the unit's Facebook page at

    Andrew Nesbit, a Roanoke College sophomore from Baton Rouge, La., was studying abroad at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan when the quake/tsunami struck. A psychology major, Nesbit said he had no particularly strong interest in Japan, but was a semester ahead in his studies and wanted to "travel somewhere very cool."

    Although there was no damage in Osaka, which is about 280 miles southwest of Tokyo, Nesbit was encouraged to leave. With the threat of radiation, the possibility of Tokyo International Airport shutting down loomed large "and I realized I might not be able to get out," he said.

    On March 16, Nesbit left Kansai International Airport in Osaka on a 6 a.m. flight to Tokyo International. He arrived at Tokyo International an hour later, only to find the airport "a mess."

    "The airport was very crowded," he said. "People were camped out on floors." Obtaining a boarding pass at a self-service kiosk - normally a 5- to 10-minute process - took an hour. Nesbit said he boarded his flight out within minutes of departure, four hours after arriving at Tokyo International.

    After a brief stop in Dallas, Nesbit flew to Boston to visit his girlfriend. Several days later, he flew to Charlotte, then to Roanoke. In retrospect, the journey was fairly free of complication, Nesbit said.

    "My family and friends are very glad to see me back," he said. Nesbit is happily back on campus, finishing out what began as a semester abroad doing independent study with several of his professors.




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