Japan disaster hits home for Issaquah family

April 5, 2011

By Sarah Gerdes

When Kelli Dotson and her husband Robert sat down to watch a pre-recorded show, the evening started out like any other Friday night.

Rachelle Dotson

Their Issaquah house was quiet, only one of their five children still living at home. At about 10 p.m., Kelli’s phone showed a text message from her eldest son, urging her to turn on the news.

“It’s about Rachelle,” Kelli told her husband.

In horror, the two watched as a tsunami swept over the Sendai airport after a massive earthquake hit the northeastern part of Japan. They had reason for concern. Their daughter Rachelle was serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 12 miles north of Sendai.

“She had just been transferred from Koriyama,” recalled her mother Kelli, who had received weekly emails from their daughter.

The week before, Rachelle had sent her parents a one-liner that said she had a new companion from Tahiti, didn’t know her new address or phone number and wouldn’t have email access.

“Had I known this was going to happen, I would have asked for an address,” Kelli added ruefully.

For two days, the Dotson family waited for news.

Waiting for word

Rachelle studied Japanese at Issaquah High School, and after graduating in 2008, continued her studies at Brigham Young University, where she attended with her twin sister Courtney. When she turned 21, she decided to use her skills to help others and sent in her request to serve a mission. Rachelle had the distinction of being the only female missionary from North America.

As the Dotson family waited to hear word about Rachelle, they took comfort in the fact she was stationed 12 miles north of the city. And while Kelli felt sure her daughter was safe, Robert toyed with the notion of assembling his overseas network to extract his daughter.

It wasn’t necessary, though. Twenty-four hours later, the family received word that Rachelle was safe and unharmed. Two days later, Rachelle sent her family a short email, wherein she described her close encounter.

“I’m well,” her note began, comforting her family. She then recounted her experience.

She and her companion were riding their bikes when they heard the earthquake. Dismounting, the earth then shook beneath them.

“Cars beside us were bouncing and the canal on the other side was sloshing 10 feet,” she wrote. She and her companion “crawled into a field, hugged each other and prayed.”

Three long days

The Dotsons now knew that Rachelle had made it through the quake and tsunami without injury, but didn’t know whether she was at an evacuation center, apartment or the church. It would be “three long days before we received her email giving us a little more information,” Kelli said.

During that time, Kelli and Robert were sick with worry — “Was she cold? Hungry? Did she have water and blankets or a place to sleep?” The thoughts of her suffering were particularly hard on Kelli, until she was inspired by memories of Rachelle on her fourth-year girls’ hike.

“She carried her 40-pound pack on her back, and her partner’s on her front, so that they could continue on without rest breaks,” Kelli said.

Her mother then realized her daughter was a strong woman — physically, emotionally and spiritually.

“I realized she would not be ‘the victim.’ She would be the one helping others, figuring out what needed to be done and how to do it.”

The realization brought Kelli a sense of peace and gave her much comfort.

Dear friends lost

Kelli said her daughter had found a love for the elderly people of Japan. It was one of the aspects of her mission she talked about most.

“She felt very close to them, just as family members,” she said.

Rachelle told of her unsuccessful attempts to reach her dear friends, the elderly people she had served.

“She wanted to stay and take care of those in need, and was unable to,” Kelli said. “It has made it very difficult for her.”

Two male missionaries were determined to assist others who may have taken refuge at the local chapel. Finding it empty, they returned downstairs to find their bikes washed away and the waters rising. They stayed on the roof of the three-story building, listening to the shattering glass until the waters receded.

Through a Facebook page constructed for families of missionaries serving in Japan, the Dotsons learned that a great many were spared from injury and death. Young men and women from Sendai, Fukushima and other areas were all at a regional training meeting.

“Had they been in their apartments or on the ground, it could have been a tragedy,” Kelli said.

Missionaries evacuated

Eventually, the decision was made to evacuate all missionaries in the area. The Dotson family received successive emails from Rachelle stating that gas was not to be found, and when it was, the bridges were out. Kelli and Robert knew that food and water were in scarce supply, but Rachelle assured her parents she had what she needed.

“I know she didn’t have hot water for a week,” Kelli said, “but she didn’t complain once.”

A week after the earthquake, the missionaries landed in Sapporo, where they received medical attention and spoke with family members.

“She sounded like the Rachelle we know,” Kelli said, adding that now her daughter has a survival instinct she didn’t have before.

“She carries a lot of food and water with her wherever she goes,” Kelli explained, “and has a bag packed of clothes ready to go at any moment.”

Rachelle told her mother she knows it’s not necessary, but she can’t help it. Rachelle is scheduled to come home from Japan on Dec. 22.

Sarah Gerdes is a freelance writer for The Press. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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