FORT LEE, Va. (Mar. 8, 2016) -- A magnitude 9 earthquake shook northeastern Japan at 2:26 p.m., March 11, 2011, setting off a chain of events that eventually killed nearly 16,000 people and caused over $300 billion in damages.

It was a horrible Friday afternoon that only got worse.

About an hour after the Tohoku earthquake struck, the first of two tsunamis hit the coast. Besides causing massive damage and taking thousands of lives, the 30-foot waves damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in the release of radioactive materials into both the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean and causing widespread fear of radiation poisoning.

Despite the massive devastation, none of the Defense Commissary Agency's 15 stores and three central distribution centers in Japan were seriously damaged. Throughout the aftermath, these facilities and a supply chain supported by industry partners and DeCA employees in and outside of Japan continued delivering the commissary benefit to service members and their families, said Keith Hagenbuch, executive director of DeCA's Store Operations Group.

"Our stores reopened within hours of the disaster, and stayed open well beyond normal operating schedules," said Hagenbuch, who was director of the agency's West Region in 2011. "Most had experienced power failures, but they were able to operate by using backup generators to run the freezers and cooling units, as well as the registers. Some lacked the power for lights, but our employees adapted, helping customers through the store with flashlights."

Misawa, being the commissary nearest the most seriously damaged areas, sustained about $5,400 worth of damage to the store and its product inventory. The commissary reopened the next morning, operating on generator power.

"I opened the store and the crowd just started clapping and cheering," said Greg McGruder, the store director at Misawa in 2011, who credited his store staff, vendor support and his zone and regional leadership for helping to keep the store open. Today, he is manager of DeCA's Zone 28. "Many customers stopped to say thank you or to volunteer to help us get the store back in order."

Air Force Col. Al Wimmer, vice commander of the base's 35th Fighter Wing, whose own wife, Kelli, was one of the commissary volunteers, thanked the commissary for helping to "restore confidence and ease" to the community.

In an e-mail message to DeCA Director and CEO Joseph Jeu on March 22, 2011, Wimmer referred to the commissary as "the bedrock" of the Misawa Air Base community. "Amid rumors of food shortages … customers rushed [to] the commissary and lines were horrendous," Wimmer said. "Mr. McGruder and his staff ensured that nothing but courtesy and service were exhibited by every employee. … I know because I personally watched his efforts on several occasions."

Misawa's main power returned around 2 p.m. Sunday, March 13. Normally closed on Mondays, the store opened that day to serve customers who especially needed bottled water, bread, batteries, charcoal and emergency supplies. "Batteries and charcoal sold out immediately on the first day due to the power outage," McGruder said.

"Some commissary employees were walking to and from work because there was no gasoline available in town, and when it was, there were long lines for it," said Tadashi Hiraide, a Japanese national and accounting technician at the store. "The trains had also stopped running."

Because of reports of significant damage to the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in northeastern Japan, concerns arose over the safety of some foods in the commissary due to possible radiation contamination. The commissary immediately removed eggs, milk, spinach, vegetables and fresh fruit from the store as the Food Protection, Japan District Veterinary Command enacted a radiation surveillance program to screen food storage areas in Japan, including the commissaries.

By the end of March, fresh items the Japanese government declared safe for consumption began appearing in the stores, according to Bruce Graf, manager of Zone 35 in 2011. Today, Graf is zone manager of Zone 13.

Keeping the commissaries open in the aftermath of the disaster was a herculean job made possible by DeCA employees and their industry partners working beyond the norm, Hagenbuch said. For example, product resupplies from the states that normally took 10-14 days were expedited to one to two days.

"Thanks to the efforts of the Iwakuni and Okinawa Central Distribution Centers, the stores maintained adequate stocks of critical items," Hagenbuch said. "It couldn't have been done without our industry suppliers and vendors and the outstanding work of our commissary employees."

As product continued to flow to Japan's mainland stores, the commissaries also supported the added troops brought to Japan as part of the U.S. military relief effort, codenamed Operation Tomodachi -- Japanese for "friendship." The following were just a few examples of commissaries going beyond their normal mission:
• At Naval Air Facility Atsugi, the commissary opened after the earthquake on a day it is normally closed;
• At Sagami Depot, the commissary supported a 70-percent surge in sales to accommodate the community's response to the crisis;
• The Iwakuni Central Distribution Center worked with commissaries at Hario and Sasebo to provide supplies to U.S. ships supporting the relief effort;
• The Okinawa Central Distribution Center processed nearly 4,400 cases of bottled water to support Marines deploying to Japan; and
• At Yokota Air Base, the commissary processed a special purchase of baby formula and baby food that was taken to evacuation centers in Sendai, an area hard-hit by the earthquake and tsunami.

As recovery and rebuilding began, most of the commercial grocery stores in the hardest-hit areas remained closed, or had few items on their shelves, Graf recalled, leaving Japanese citizens struggling to find basic necessities, especially bottled water.

The American commissaries helped Japanese locals by serving as collection points for bottled water, personal hygiene products and food drives for people affected by the disaster, Graf said. Ten trailers were set up at Camp Zama to distribute water to the locals and the military personnel stationed there.

While periodic aftershocks continued to rattle the area through June 23, 2011, DeCA's stores in Japan continued to work their normal hours to serve the needs of the U.S. military community stationed there.

"The events of March 2011 severely tested our ability to deliver the commissary benefit during a crisis," Jeu said. "I'm proud of the dedication and spirit of community our people showed to serve our patrons when they most needed their commissary."