Disasterology 5: When the high ground isn’t high enough

October 10, 2013

For survivors of Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. Northeast, the Sendai tsunami in Japan and the massive earthquake in Chengdu, China, the scars of disaster are still palpable. I’m part of a group of journalists brought together by the East-West Center in Hawaii to see how the people and environments hit by these catastrophes are faring, one year,  two years and five years later. We began our tour on Sept. 29. Here are the other posts in the series:

The school children in Minamisanriku knew what to do in case of a tsunami: run as fast as they could up the hill to the Togura middle school, perched more than 40 meters, or 131 feet, above Shizagawa Bay. This wasn’t high enough when the waves rolled in on March 3, 2011.

The waves were 10 meters (32 feet) high at sea, but reached more than 50 meters (164 feet) when they slammed into the land in this part of Japan’s beach-and-mountain fringed east coast. The tsunami created a swirling whirlpool in, around and finally, on top of the school, according to Sachie Shijo, a native of Minamisanriku and a volunteer now with the non-profit group Peace Winds, which is helping the town to recover. The water came from the landward side, as well as from the sea, Shijo said through a translator. It was everywhere.

Togura school is now shuttered, with plywood covering broken doors and windows where students used to enter. Two plastic chairs sit in front of the doors. The water twisted the metal roof of a covered walkway, and it remains as it was, rusted in place. The nearby gymnasium is dark and parts of the school grounds are fenced off.

Much of this fishing community of 27,000 was wiped off the map when the tsunami hit; more than 500 people died. Five thousand people had to leave their homes. Even two-and-a-half years later, there are areas where no resettlement is allowed, with the ruins of broken bridges and the foundations of vanished homes everywhere. Shijo pointed out the place where her family’s home once stood. It is now a rubble-strewn, puddle-pocked field.

Many of those who used to live in the inundated areas are in temporary housing, and one such temporary village is set up in the parking lot of the damaged hilltop school. Few families with young children care to risk staying close to where the tsunami came, and most residents of this village are elderly. They tend a community garden and hang out their laundry to dry on the same hillside where the water came.

Shijo’s parents live in one unit, with about one-tenth the space they used to have in their home, about the size of four tatami mats. She said they don’t complain.


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