Man trying to get family to Detroit Lakes from Japan
A Detroit Lakes native teaching English in Japan is in survival mode, trying to get his family out of the devastated country after it was rocked by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, tsunami, and now three nuclear plant explosions.
32-year-old Brook Chelmo, his Japanese wife, Keiko and their 14-month-old daughter, Aria, live in the Japanese town of Takrarazuka-shi, which is about eight hours southwest of the earthquake's epicenter.
In a Facebook interview, Chelmo told a reporter from this newspaper that when his wife texted him the message "BIG EARTHQUAKE!!!" he basically prepared his mind for war.
He said his family is doing fine right now, but the threat of nuclear power plant fallout and aftershocks has the family desperately searching for a way back to the United States.
Their town is located about four hours south of the latest nuclear plant explosion, and although radiation threats aren't yet imminent where they are, it's still a grave concern.
"I don't know how bad it will get," Chelmo says, "We are a ways from Fukushima, but if the fallout becomes atmospheric then we will either fly out from the southern islands or sail to Korea and get out of the area."
The nuclear unknown isn't the only looming threat.
Large aftershocks continue to plague areas throughout Japan, and are reportedly shifting south towards the Chelmos family.
They just received word from seismologists in Tokyo that the plate movement could cause another major earthquake south of the last one within a month or less.
"People are getting ready for that ... we braced some of the furniture that is near the beds," Chelmo said.
Chelmo and his family (including Keiko's mother and grandmother, who live with them) are slightly comforted knowing their house is built into a mountain, where the ground is higher and more solid.
They are also joining other alarmed residents in stocking up on food and water as stores are beginning to empty.
Now, they wait for more news, any news that will either ease their fears or free them to flee Japan.
But no matter how badly they want out, immigration laws hold them there.
"We are free to leave, but we would be forced back because my wife does not have a visa for the U.S. yet," Chelmo said.
The Chelmos have tried to get a visa in the past, but first there were problems on the government's side, then their daughter was born and their application status expired during that time.
The family now sits in limbo as they email their pleas to Minnesota elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Mark Dayton, soliciting their help in escaping Japan and getting them back home to Detroit Lakes.
"After 9/11 we can't bring our foreign wives to the U.S. to live," Chelmo said. "We have to apply for a visa outside of the country first. This process takes a long time. We are asking the Minnesota leaders to help us escape Japan and let us continue the visa process back home."
One of Chelmo's most recent Facebook posts is a call for advice on immigration options, digging where he can for ideas.
It reads: "Explosion No. 3 ... Does anyone know if we returned to the U.S., if Keiko could get refugee status so she could stay without going through the lengthy immigration procedures?"
Adding to their sense of urgency is their baby girl's serious medical condition.
Little Aria has an extremely rare congenital disease, which causes her to stop breathing at night.
Her grandmother, Detroit Lakes resident Joyce Chelmo, says if Aria falls asleep without the machine, she'll die.
"That's stressful, too, because the machine runs on electricity, and although Brook's area still has power, they said the Japanese government is scheduling blackouts in order to conserve energy," said Joyce Chelmo, who adds that Brook and Keiko do have an eight-hour battery pack for back-up.
Brook Chelmo confirmed this concern, telling us they have the battery pack charged, but are hoping it doesn't come to that.
In fact, he typed some of his Facebook messages in the dark in an attempt to conserve power.
Meanwhile, the importance of Aria's breathing machine complicates evacuation matters even more, because according to Brook Chelmo, they would have to return the $20,000 machine to Japan and purchase a new one in the states.
Even if they could get the money for that, there is still the hurdle of finding a job here in the U.S. that will provide them with medical insurance necessary to care for Aria's condition.
"We are being squeezed by governments, health, insurance, and tsunamis," Chelmo said.
In the meantime, Joyce and her husband, Richard Chelmo, sit glued to the television and their computers in Detroit Lakes.
"Thank God for my computer," says Joyce Chelmo. "We're able to talk via Skype (conference calling) to all of them during this and get regular Facebook updates."
The worried grandmother and mother says she is frustrated with U.S. immigration laws.
"Keiko is such a good person ... we need somebody who knows how to get her a visa quicker."
She goes on to say that as worried as she is, she knows that if anybody can handle this, her son can.
"Brook is so strong and intelligent. He is going to save his family."
You can contact Brook and Keiko Chelmo through Facebook or Skype.