Imagine having to leave your home, your friends, even your husband out of fear of something you cannot see, smell or touch. That's the story of so many mothers who evacuated Fukushima after a tsunami tore into their city's nuclear power plant.
Two of them described their journey to ABC News last week in New York.
Time will tell if they are the lucky ones.
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the coast of Japan. Thirty minutes later a massive tsunami flattened the Northern Tohoku region, killing nearly 20,000 men, women and children who couldn't run from the path of the oncoming wave. A tsunami alert had gone out, but no one expected the waves to be so huge.
Minutes after the first quake, myriad aftershocks riddled the entire country as fires sprang up in the oil containment centers of Chiba. The Sendai Airport went underwater, and people struggled to find their loved ones. The situation gravely worsened as news of an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant sent fear across the globe that still reverberates today.
Chiaki Tomitsuka lived in Fukushima Prefecture, 36 miles from the nuclear plant. She had heard about the horrors of Chernobyl, and even though the amount of radioactive material released in Fukushima was much lower than that nuclear disaster, Tomitsuka feared for the health of her 10-year-old son. She and her husband quickly tried to come up with a plan to evacuate, but it wasn't so easy.
"Several days after the accident, many of my friends started evacuating the area," said Tomitsuka. "But our family could not leave, because the trains had been halted due to the continuing quakes, and we didn't have enough gasoline for our car."
Gasoline become a rare commodity. People lined up at dawn for hours to wait for fuel to be delivered to gas stations, only to find that gas had run out, leaving many to try their luck again the following day.
For Tomitsuka, it was not until March 23, 11 days after the explosion at the nuclear plant, that she and her son, Yuri, could get enough gas in their car to evacuate to Kanagawa Prefecture, where her parents lived. Tomitsuka has since moved with her son into a temporary public housing facility in Yokohama, separated from her husband who stayed behind in Fukushima to work.
"It's sad that I can't see my father often," her son, Yuri, admitted. "But I believe it was a good decision to evacuate, because I don't want to be ill in the future. I want to live a long time and relieve my parents of anxiety."
Her housing is guaranteed only till next year, and Tomitsuka does not want to think about what will happen when her term is up.
"I can't think about that right now," she confided. "I can barely deal with the current realities. If I began thinking about that, I would slip into a deeper depression."
Tomitsuka's only regret is that she was not able to say her goodbyes to her friends, neighbors and teachers at her son's school before evacuating. Despite mixed emotions of fear and guilt, she knows she made the right decision to leave. She is aware that not everyone had the means to do so.
Fukushima, once an area rich with lush cherry blossom trees and beautiful landscapes, has become synonymous with the dangers of radiation. The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant released 168 times the amount of radiation that was released by the atomic blast on Hiroshima in 1945, and was categorized as a Level 7 on the International Nuclear Events Scale, the highest level possible.