HOPE AMID THE DISASTERS: One year later, Ishinomaki survivors continue to persevere


PICKING UP THE PIECES — Clean up continues nine months after the tsunami hit Ishinomaki on March 11, 2011. This is the view of the Ishinomaki coastline from Kashimamiko Shrine on Dec. 20. photo by Chad Uemura

PICKING UP THE PIECES — Clean up continues nine months after the tsunami hit Ishinomaki on March 11, 2011. This is the view of the Ishinomaki coastline from Kashimamiko Shrine on Dec. 20. photo by Chad Uemura

ISHINOMAKI, Japan — As students bustled through the many hallways, corridors and buildings at Ishinomaki Senshu University in December 2011, tangible reminders of the Great East Japan Earthquake were difficult to find on the hilltop campus, which escaped much of the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami that struck nine months earlier.

Many of the minor cracks to the interior portions of the school’s buildings have been repaired, but for those who were on the campus in the days and months
after the disaster, many of the emotional scars still remain.

“The water started to push the poles, cars, houses and people,” said Maiko Sato, a third-year business administration major, who fled from her seaside home with her grandmother when the tsunami hit. “People disappeared all of a sudden. It was like a movie scene. I just had to keep running, because the tsunami came to the high place where I thought it was safe. Some people said, ‘Help me,’ but I could not, and I kept running.”

Takashi Sakata, an agricultural chemistry professor at Ishinomaki Senshu University, explained that many students were at home when the disaster struck, during the university’s spring vacation. However, he noted that some graduate students and faculty members were conducting research on the campus at the time of the disaster on March 11, 2011.

Sakata, who was attending an academic conference in Sapporo (on Hokkaido) at the time of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, said an independent broadcast system ordered campus employees, students, and community members to evacuate to the first floor school cafeteria. The campus subsequently lost electrical power and tsunami warnings were broadcast on the radio. People then evacuated to the third floor of the university’s central building near the campus entrance.

While the university and the surrounding homes near the campus were spared, a five-minute drive to the city’s waterfront area quickly reveals a striking contrast to the campus area’s clean and pristine atmosphere. The first floors of many homes in the area now reveal the skeleton-like structure of their support system after being completely gutted by the powerful waves — some of which are leaning to the side, and barely able to support the second level of the homes.

Although the second floors of these homes may still be intact, many of them are uninhabitable because of compromised structures. Large, pyramid-structures of sorted debris now sit on stripped areas of land that large industrial factories used to dominate.

In these areas, the human losses were the highest. In Ishinomaki, Sakata said nearly 40 percent of the city’s 60,000-household population sustained a heavy amount of damage to their homes — most of which was concentrated on the first floor. Of the nearly 162,000 people who lived in Ishinomaki prior to the earthquake, 4,000 people either lost their lives or are still missing — a rate that accounts for nearly 2.5 percent of the city’s entire population. However, in other towns, the death rate was much higher. In the nearby town of Onagawa, which is located to the north of Ishinomaki, nearly 10 percent of the town’s entire population was killed during the disaster.

In all, Sakata said six out of the 1,800 students that attend the university died during the disaster — many while attempting to save aged or disabled family members. Sakata said he was “very proud of these students,” and noted their relatively high survival rate when compared to the numbers of victims in the town.

“The reason why many students survived is a matter to study seriously, because many students’ homes were located in areas that were very heavily damaged,” Sakata said. “Their decision-making skills or actions may have helped them.”

Crippling Effects During the Aftermath of the Disaster

One of the most crippling effects during the immediate aftermath of the tsunami and earthquakes was the severe loss of major utilities, including electricity, water and natural gas. Although the city was able to quickly supplement the loss of these essential utilities, other local governments, including Osaka and Niigata, strongly supported these efforts by immediately sending supplies to Ishinomaki and other devastated areas.

Three 83-kilowatt generators powered the university — making it one of the few places in town where people could access electricity — and it was restored nearly three weeks after the disaster. In addition, water was supplied by trucks owned by the city on a 10-ton ration per day until the water line was restored on April 4 — nearly one month after the disaster. Of the town’s major utilities, natural gas was hit the hardest, since the company and its storage port in Sendai were severely damaged by the earthquakes and tsunami. In fact, natural gas lines were only restored in mid-December.

Although automobiles played a large role in helping some people escape from the incoming tsunami, the same vehicles were also flammable due to the large amount of gasoline in their tanks, and posed an added threat to the disaster survivors. Satellite images taken of Ishinomaki on the day after the disaster revealed grey smoke patches rising from automobile fires that were scattered throughout the town. During the tsunami itself, these same cars became dangerous projectiles that hit anything in their path, including homes, buildings and people.

“Three or four days after March 11, I went back to my house,” Sato said. “Since my house was new, I thought that my house was still standing, but there was a big fire around my neighborhood with the tsunami. My hometown looked like an ‘after the war’ picture that I saw in a textbook. Nothing was left. I just saw the foundation of my house.”

The city’s entire city center was flooded, which left the city hall isolated from the rest of the town. The city’s mayor, Hiroshi Kameyama, was in Sendai for official business on the day of the disaster, but he was unable to return to the Ishinomaki town hall, and stayed at the town’s Red Cross hospital, which was one of the few large buildings that were still intact in the town. He finally reached the town hall by canoe the following day.

A Central Hub for Recovery Efforts

Although the same isolation prevented people from reaching their families and delayed recovery efforts, it was also particularly beneficial to Ishinomaki Senshu University. The university’s location on the top of a hill protected it, and surrounding homes in the area from the tsunami, making the large campus parking lot and school buildings an ideal location for centralizing mobilization and recovery efforts.

Initially, Sakata said the school harbored and shared its resources — including nearly three years worth of donated emergency food and 120 tons of stored water — with community members and students who were unable to return to their homes. The university provided a temporary shelter in the campus buildings for the students who had lost their homes in the disaster.

At the beginning of last April, the university estimated that nearly 170 students and their families required some form of housing. Many families were packed inside evacuation sites, such as gymnasiums or schools.

To resolve the situation, a university executive reserved 50 hotel rooms in a town nearly 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away from Ishinomaki for university students and their families at a reasonable rate that was subsidized by the university. This included the use of school buses for transportation between the two sites.

The university’s assistance efforts extended beyond its campus, to various organizations involved in the town’s recovery effort. Because the branch office of the Miyagi Prefecture was flooded by the tsunami and severely damaged by the earthquake, the university housed 100 to 300 prefecture office staff in its gymnasium until the end of September. Even the city’s police department used a few of the university’s classrooms to mobilize rescue efforts and provide immediate assistance to nearby flood victims. To accommodate this need, the university moved its winter semester’s start date from April 1 to May 20.

“This is a very specific university, because we are at the front line of the disaster,” Sakata said. “We are the victims as well, so we can recognize the real needs very easily, but to put it quite simply, we had no other choice — it is very likely that other universities would have done the same thing in the our situation.”

Despite the frigid temperatures and winter weather conditions, the Red Cross also set up a temporary medical area in the university’s parking lot to respond to the medical needs of victims and coordinate transportation needs to area hospitals. In all, Sakata said the Red Cross treated nearly 100 patients each day for several weeks. Other areas of the parking lot were reserved for volunteer organizations that received busloads of citizens who were eager to help.

Portland, Ore. native Brian Starkey was one of those volunteers. Starkey, an international coordinator at Tohoku Fukushi University’s Center for International Academic Exchange, explained he had witnessed the devastation before he even began volunteering, as Ishinomaki is his wife’s hometown. However, after he received an assignment to help shovel debris from homes in the tsunami-ravaged areas of the town nearly two months after the disaster, he readily admitted that it was the first time that he had ever walked through the area and walked into someone’s home.

“You’re talking to them and I’m asking them, ‘What do you want me to do,’ and you just don’t know where to start,” Starkey, who has lived in Sendai for the past 15 years, said. “They don’t know where to start, so you just start your way at the entrance and scoop your way into the back.”

Although he had been on the Shinkansen (bullet train) outside of the Fukushima station at the time of the disaster and was forced to stay there for several days before returning home, Starkey explained that many of the residents in the devastated areas were not as concerned about the nuclear disaster as they were about other pressing issues, such as surveying their homes, searching for missing loved ones, and relocating to be with other family members.

Although many residents opted to throw away many of the damaged items from their homes to avoid the laborious task of cleaning them, there were others who were determined to save as many items as possible. He recalled one homeowner who wanted to save almost everything that he found inside a waterlogged drawer that had fallen over in a living room.

“There were times where I found some things like a ripped picture and they would say, ‘No! No! Save that picture,’” Starkey said. “Sometimes, it didn’t mean anything, but they wanted to hold onto anything that they could.”

Although some people truly needed the help, Starkey also said that others were taking advantage of the volunteer’s assistance. On one occasion, Starkley explained that a homeowner had asked him to weed the garden outside even though there was no visible structural damage to the property — a stark contrast to a neighboring house that was vacant and severely damaged.

“What are you going to say,” Starkey said. “Their house is destroyed — the upstairs portion may be OK but the downstairs portion was unusable at the moment — so you can’t really refuse.”

Although some homeowners and companies have begun the rebuilding process, the disaster has left its mark in other ways that will affect Ishinomaki residents for many years to come.

In all, Sakata said nearly 630 of the university’s 1,800 total students are facing “very grave financial difficulties” after the tsunami directly severed their family’s household income, especially those students whose family members were employed in the fishing or agricultural industry. To help these families, Sakata explained that the university is using its private institution status to issue partial or complete tuition waivers for these students over the next two years — an action that Sakata noted is necessary, since tuition fees in Japan are equivalent to that of universities in the United States.

“I think it is very important to let these suffered students graduate, because I thought that many of them change into very serious, very hard-working students,” Sakata said. “They grew, they developed by a very, very large cost — sometimes at the lives of their parents — so they know what the disaster means and know how victims feel after the disaster. I want them to become leaders in many different areas, such as companies or local governments, because they know how difficult situations such as this really are.”

Despite the assistance that the university has been able to provide for its students and the community, the disaster has also had a significantly negative impact on its enrollment. One particular reason, Sakata said, is because the direct Japan Railways line between Ishinomaki and Sendai was severed during the tsunami and may take more than three years to complete after its original route along the coastline was deemed to be unsafe. Many students who live outside of the town must now take an inconvenient route that requires them to make several train transfers before reaching the town, Sakata explained.

Hope Amid the Disaster

Apart from the negative impacts that the disaster has had on the community, there is still residual hope in some of the accomplishments made since the disaster first struck. Although graduation ceremonies are a very important event in Japan, a traditional ceremony had to be abandoned, since the university’s gymnasium was being used for an evacuation site. However, because nearly 15 out of the 250 university students taking refuge at the school were eligible for graduation, Sakata was determined to hold the ceremony in spite of the challenges brought by the disaster.

“The office staff covered some desks with a white cloth, and fortunately my suit was on the second floor of my house,” Sakata said jokingly. “The home of the dean of the science faculty was completely damaged — he had nine cars inside of his home with three bodies inside of the car. But, fortunately, his suit was also on the second floor of his home, so we hurried to our homes to pick up our clothes. At the time, I used my mountain bike, so I put the suit inside of my backpack and carried it back for the ceremony.”

Despite the formalities that are typically exercised at traditional commencements, Sakata said he enjoyed the intimacy of the small gradation ceremony that involved presenting each student with his or her diploma.

“After the ceremony, we shook hands and many of the students told me, ‘Take care of your health.’ It was very impressive,” Sakata said.

One response to “HOPE AMID THE DISASTERS: One year later, Ishinomaki survivors continue to persevere”

  1. Colorado Avatar

    Water seeping through the walls or ceiling could also be dangerous as it can come in contact with electrical wiring. You might receive an electrical shock just by touching the walls. It is wise to turn off the power first and ensure that the rooms are to enter into. You then need to locate the source of leakage and arrest it as quickly as possible.

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