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Teens endure traumatic days on U.S. naval base in Japan

Evacuated from naval base, family waits out disaster in Troutdale home
by: Jim Clark Jennifer Moretty and her children, Tanner and Talia, are reunited after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The military family resides at a naval base in Yokosuka, Japan.

Tanner Moretty was heading to baseball practice at his high school in Japan when the earth beneath him started to shake.

When he saw water rushing down the stairs behind the gymnasium, the 15-year-old knew something serious was happening.

The source? The school's Olympic-sized swimming pool, where the quaking earth sloshed water out and above its walls.

'Everything was shaking,' the teen recalled of the 9.0-magnitude quake on March 11. 'The cars in the parking lot were bouncing up and down.'

Moretty and his sister, Talia, 13, recounted their experiences with the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan from the safety of their grandfather's Troutdale home. Thursday morning, March 18, the teens caught a flight from Tokyo to Portland after their father, Jon, a U.S. Navy commander at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan, carried out orders to evacuate all non-military personnel.

Along with their mother, Jennifer, an East County native, Tanner and Talia have called the naval base home since June 2010. Before that, the family lived in Washington and seven other states.

After the first quake hit, Tanner thought the worst had come and gone.

'I was going to continue with the day,' he said. 'Then there was another one five to 10 minutes after. Then the alarm started to go off on the base, from a big speaker, for a tsunami warning. They said 'Get away from the water and go on the big hill,' the highest place on the base.'

Displacement

The monstrous disaster in Japan - which includes a threat of radiation danger from a ruined nuclear power plant - has put their lives indefinitely on hold.

The kids have no idea when they'll be able to return to their adopted Japanese home, so for the time being they're out of school and at loose ends. They keep in touch with friends and their father, when he has a spare second, through Facebook.

'It's changing constantly,' Tanner said of the unfolding disaster. 'There are new radiation problems, more earthquakes, on and off. You're just clueless what's going to happen next.'

Noting her friends in Japan are safe and accounted for, Talia recalled the odd 'zombie apocalypse' landscape she witnessed in the days after the tragedy claimed thousands of lives.

'It was just weird. Nobody was outside,' she said. 'If they were outside, they had (surgical) masks on.'

Compounding the surreal circumstances, Jennifer Moretty, who teaches English in Japan, had returned to East County in February to visit her ailing mother, Sheila Hopman, who died March 5.

Despite the chain of heartbreaking events in her life, however, she realizes - given the gravity of the Japan disasters - how fortunate her family has been.

'I picked up the kids at the airport this morning at 8:30,' she said on Thursday afternoon. 'It brought tears to my eyes, that's for sure. It was a big sense of relief. They're happy to be here. I gave 'em a big squeeze."

What next?

With three fourths of the family secure in Troutdale for the time being, the fate of husband and father Jon, a 22-year Navy veteran who Jennifer said is working 'all day and all night,' remains up in the air.

'It's best if they get military families out of there so the servicemen can concentrate on the disaster,' she said. 'I think the military is doing the best they can to keep us informed with what they know.'

That doesn't mean she and the kids wouldn't prefer Jon - whom she got to know as a student at the former Columbia (now Reynolds) High School and married in 1993 - were with his family.

'It's kind of bittersweet,' she said. If he comes home, 'that means things are really, really bad' in Japan. 'On one hand I want him to stay and help the people. Selfishly, I want him home.'