So it’s been one full year since the earthquake and still not a day goes by without us thinking about it. Even being safe and sound here in Tokyo during the earthquake and seeing none of the carnage first hand, like most people in the capital I was glued to the news for the first days of the unfolding disaster. I remember walking home from work, helmet in hand in case of after shocks, while watching the news on my cell phone. As darkness fell truly shocking images came in from the port city of Kesennuma on fire from burning ships drifting in over the city drowned in the massive tsunami, and those images were massively more shocking than the earthquake itself for me personally. The days following the earthquake me and many other foreign bloggers fought hard to fight back the ridiculous news coming out of foreign news media. The bank of Japan pumped money into the market to stabilize a completely unrealistic stock market situation, the government of Japan had to route precious resources to calm citizens of Tokyo all the while leaving the people actually stuck in the disaster zone in a worse situation than what would have been necessary if foreign media hadn’t been busy milking the story for every penny it was worth. At the end of March I and a good friend decided enough was enough and we piled as much food and supplies as we could find into a small car and just went up there to see how bad it really was. We did it again in the first days of April, this time with a third friend and a much bigger van, raising a budget of about 8000 USD just by asking friends, friends of friends, and coworkers for donations. A few stores around Tokyo was asked to prepare our orders and we spent a whole evening gathering supplies as not one store had enough of what we needed (at this point there wasn’t any sort of rationing in Tokyo itself, as stores had had plenty of time to restock after the initial buying). From the places we had already visited we knew exactly what supplies they needed. Although we had planned a route of cities to visit we ran out of supplies early on. The farthest north we got on that second trip was to Kesennuma City, the place were those first shocking images were coming from less than three weeks earlier. I took these photos of burnt and damaged ships in the harbor, but up to a certain point the city was in essence destroyed.
Since the day I took these photos I haven’t been able to go back up north and see for myself how much has changed but several of my friends have made it a monthly ritual to spend a weekend work volunteering in the worst hit areas. It is a little surprising to me personally that it felt better to walk in the rubble and see it first hand than to see it on the news or in photos. The scariest part of going there was the journey home and the feeling that you aren’t actually doing enough to help. I still daydream of quitting my job and moving up there permanently, but I doubt that will ever happen. I know things have stabilized a lot in this year, but having seen the area both before and after the earthquake, I still think there are few places in any country as dynamic, as challenging and as interesting as the north of Japan right now. I hope I can visit soon again.
If you want to read my other posts on the earthquake, just go back to March 11, 2011, March 13 2011, and so on, through to April 2011. But much more than the blog posts themselves, the comments are what is interesting as dozens of people wrote words of support, commentary on what was going on, pitching questions, helping out and making sure me and everyone else in what almost felt like a little community (a Tokyobling community?!) for a couple of weeks. Seeing my posts twittered and mentioned on other blogs also really helped lift my spirits. Non mentioned and non forgotten, those comments helped a lot.
My final post on Onagawa for this time, sorry if it’s been a little repetitive here lately, this stuff is on my mind almost constantly.
The earthquake struck at 14:46 and continued for a couple of minutes. At 14:50 most people would have started to consider evacuation, and if you were on foot in the middle of Onagawa town this would mean the centrally located hospital atop a tall hill. Just as an experiment, I recreated the route people would have taken to see what it would feel like. Now I’m young and healthy with good legs so I can’t even imagine what it would be like to escape this route if you were old or injured already. As you can see the stairs are pretty steep. From most locations in the harbour it would take you a few minutes, running, to reach the first stairs to the first level of evacuation. But as you can see the tsunami reached higher. From there, you have the choice of a more level road that was already blocked full of cars and people, or you can continue up the stairs that survived the earthquake. Atop the hill sits a hospital, we are now 20m from ground level, so about 25m above ocean level. In a best case scenario, the people gathered at the top of the hill would now continue running into the hospital and using internal stairs try and reach the roof. Probably guided by hospital staff and rescue staff already stranded on top of the hill. But the tsunami engulfed at least the first floor of that hospital, as you can see from the images of damaged hospital equipment: computers, furniture, patient records, medicines.
Yes, I think I would have been able to outrun the tsunami, if I was clothed, already outdoors, uninjured, healthy and not bothered with helping old/injured people up those stairs. In anything less than an ideal scenario it would have been pretty hard to get to that evacuation centre.
If you live in a coastal area close to the pacific ocean, why not try this scenario for yourself: go down to the harbour. Pick up a sack of stuff of about 50-80kg (pretending it is someone who can’t move/injured), then run to the nearest point 25m above sea level. Time yourself. Personally, I need more training. I think.
I don’t think this needs any further comment. By far the worst hit town I saw. Note the number of destroyed reinforced concrete buildings. This is unique.
The emergency center of Onagawa. The tower was manned shortly after the earthquake by city staff urging people to evacuate to higher ground. The emergency broadcast continued until the tsunami engulfed the control room.
At first I thought that the number of destroyed reinforced concrete building were wholly to blame on poor foundations, but then I took a second look at the building in this photo. See those concrete foundation pillars sticking out? Somehow the tsunami lifted the building straight out of the earth, knocking off the lower part of the pillars in process and then flipping the building over on it’s side. I am no tsunami scientist, but this right here is proof of the unbelievable power of the tsunami as it reached this town. This was not believed to be possible until now.
The city hospital and the high ground around it is the subject of a coming post. Note that the tsunami reached to the first floor of this hospital, engulfing the evacuation zone. This is also one of the few evacuation centres set up in Onagawa town proper. Well, I think this one of only two, at least that I visited.