By Starrla Cray
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN A hands-on lesson about earthquakes wasn’t on Justine Ernst’s agenda March 11, but sometimes life doesn’t go quite according to plan.
“I was in my classroom, which is on the sixth floor,” said Ernst, a Lester Prairie native who was nearing the end of her one-year teaching contract at Sendai, Japan.
Ernst’s 20 kindergartners were having quiet time, when suddenly, the ground started rocking.
The students, who have earthquake drills about once a month, knew not to panic.
“It’s a good thing we did the drills, because, being from Minnesota, I wouldn’t have known what to do,” said Ernst, the daughter of Jason and Lois Ernst.
For minor quakes, the students hide underneath tables in the classroom, but for this one, they had to evacuate the building.
“It was shaking and swaying a lot,” Ernst said. She took her students down six flights of stairs and waited in the designated emergency meeting area near the school.
“There were aftershocks going on, and it started snowing,” Ernst said. Students were given “earthquake hats,” which help protect against falling debris.
Fortunately, the quake happened near the end of the school day, so some parents were already getting ready to pick up their children.
The quake delayed many of them, however, and it took about two hours for everyone to arrive.
Some of the students didn’t fully understand what was going on, according to Ernst.
“They react to other people being afraid,” she said. “One of the 4-year-olds was really brave during the shaking, but later, when he saw a few other kids crying, he started getting scared.”
Sendai, with a population of about one million people, was the nearest major city to the quake.
Afterwards, it had varying levels of damage.
“It made a big mess of our classroom,” Ernst said. “The books were off the shelves, and we had a pet turtle whose cage broke.”
Major damage was reported at the Sendai Airport and at Sendai’s port, but most of the city remained intact.
“I didn’t see any buildings destroyed downtown, but if you looked for it, you could see the damage,” Ernst said. “There were cracks in buildings, and bricks that had fallen.”
The first two nights after the quake, Ernst stayed at a shelter, where water and heaters were delivered.
“We had no electricity, no gas, and no water. And, the cell towers weren’t working,” she said.
Later on, because of the nuclear concern, Ernst spent about a month in Tokyo.
Before coming home to the US, she went back to Sendai to pack and say goodbye.
“I only got to see six of the students,” she said.
More travel ahead
A 2005 graduate of Watertown-Mayer High School, Ernst said she’s developed a passion for travel.
Her first out-of-the-country experience was a 1.5-week trip to England, while she was a student at Concordia College in Moorhead.
She also spent a month in Prague (the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic), earning her teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) certification.
Now that she’s back in Lester Prairie, Ernst said she’s planning to sign up for graduate school to study concept art and design in Europe.
Someday, she’d love to write and illustrate children’s books, and also be involved in children’s theatre.
Ernst said the massive earthquake was probably the most surprising part of her trip to Japan, even though she had experienced smaller quakes throughout the year.
Her first minor earthquake experience was the first night in her apartment in Japan.
“To me, it was like walking on Jell-O,” she said.