Japan Reconnaissance - Day -6

Posted on May 05 2011

May 5, 2011

Today is Children’s Day – the final National Holiday that closes Golden Week. The day is marked by flying large gaily painted koi representing family members from poles or wires. First stop today was the evacuation shelter in Iwanuma City– the next city south of Yuriage in Natori City. Several koi were flying on the flag pole outside of the shelter – at half mast. Iwanuma has made progress in moving people out of the cardboard cubicles in the evacuation shelter and establishing temporary housing. Neat rows of three room mobile housing filled the open spaces around the evacuation shelter. We talked to people still in the main evacuation shelter and to people who had moved into the new temporary spaces. The difference in morale was night and day – no surprise that having one’s own space beats four cardboard walls and the floor.

Next we headed north to East Matsushima. Over 1700 people died in the East Matsushima – Higashi area where tsunami surges attacked from three directions – the coast, the Naruse River, and a canal that cuts across the city and joins Matsushima Bay to the Naruse River. We looked at the designated evacuation place in a school auditorium that was located only 2/3s of a mile from the coast and less than 800 feet from the canal. The building had no upper floors and was filled with tsunami debris. It seemed and odd choice for vertical evacuation when it was located right next to the three-story reinforced concrete elementary school. Megumi thought that the reason the school wasn’t the choice was that, unlike the school in Yuriage, the stairs were within the building and Japan has been very nervous about allowing outsiders to enter the interior of schools ever since the Osaka school massacre in 2001.

We met a group of volunteers wearing Animal Rescue T-shirts. The group included two women -from Ireland and British Columbia. These are the first Caucasians I’ve run into in the disaster area. They said their group was sponsored by FEMA, which has become very active in animals in disasters since Hurricane Katrina. The situation for pets is very difficult in Japan. The women told me that many shelters won’t accept animals and some tsunami survivors have had to give up their animals to city shelters and near-certain euthanasia. There are several animal rights groups working to develop alternatives.

We finished the day with a quick tour out to the tip of the peninsula that separates Mastushima Bay from the Pacific Ocean. We chose a bad time of day to do the drive – 4 PM when all of the dump trucks and other heavy equipment were heading home for the end of the day. Some places were a very tight squeeze. The contrast between the impacts on the Pacific side and the Bay were remarkable. On the Pacific, communities were obliterated. On the Bay, the main impacts were from liquefaction and the tsunami was relatively negligible.

Japan Reconnaissance - Day -5

Posted on May 04 2011

May 4, 2011

Best night so far – a futon on a tatami mat. Good preparation for the day. We visited the elementary school in Yuriage where several of the evacuees we talked to yesterday had waited out the tsunami. It looked almost as if it had been designed with tsunami evacuation in mind – a sturdy three-story reinforced concrete structure with multiple exterior staircases and a large accessible roof. The gymnasium of the school has now been turned into a “memory hall”, where photographs and other belongings retrieved from the demolished Yuriage homes have been posted on walls, stashed in boxes, and hung on lines. Then out to the hardest hit area of Yuriage – the extremely flat land within a half-mile of the coast. It also provided our first (and so far only) contact with police attempting to control access. The scale of the event is so large, there are so many ways to access the area, and personnel are stretched so thin that it would be very difficult to establish effective roadblocks. This was the most devastated area we’ve seen yet. Water heights in this region exceeded 30 feet and more than 1000 people died. Whole blocks were leveled with an occasional structure partially standing. The highest points were two mountains fo removed debris. A mix of activities were going on – body searches still in progress, debris removal, people looking for belongings, and other people just looking on. One woman commented while picking through the debris at her home site – isn’t this interesting, but it isn’t ours so we shouldn’t take it.

In the midst of the devastation was an artificial hill with monuments on the top. It was about 20 feet high with one large stone marker and several other flat stone bases. People were using the hill as a viewing point and had established an informal memorial to the victims. From gouges in the bark of a pine tree growing on the top, it looked like the tsunami reached at least eight feet above the top of the hill. We were trying to figure out the purpose of the hill. The riddle was solved when we went down to the back where the three other stone monuments had ended up after being overtopped by the tsunami. The largest was a tsunami stone – noting the 1933 Showa tsunami that had killed a number of people in Yuriage. It was written in old calligraphy with characters not used today and Megumi wasn’t sure of all of the details but it described the tsunami and explained that this was a safe place. Well it may have been safe in 1933, but it certainly wasn’t safe in 2011.

Japan Reconnaissance - Day -4

Posted on May 03 2011

May 3, 2011

The day began nearly as yesterday ended – with a low rumble followed 9 seconds later by slightly sharper swaying. Another aftershock. The day was focused on the people caught up in the tsunami and the decisions they made that contributed to their surviving. We started back at the Sendai Airport, this time going inside to talk with the people who had been there on March 11. Although in a mapped tsunami inundation zone, the water height was never expected to flood into the main part of the terminal. On March 11 there were about 600 employees at the airport and about a similar number of passengers. The earthquake caused the power to go out but the generators (located underground) immediately came on. There was a lot of confusion – some people rushed outside during and after the ground shaking, some people were told to go up to the second or third floor and others told to go downstairs. The airport is not a designated tsunami evacuation shelter but many people from the community sought it out because of its modern design and high profile. Security personnel and some of the passengers and staff received the tsunami forecasts by JMA, the Japanese Meteorological Agency that warned of significant wave heights. Nearly 1300 people ended up squeezing onto the second and third floors (with broken glass and other earthquake damage) when the tsunami advanced on the airport (see the link day 2). The generators died at 4 PM, about 1 hour 15 minutes after the earthquake and marks the likely time of complete inundation. Many people outside and on the ground floor were caught in the waves and perished. Those high enough endured 2 difficult days of cold, inadequate food, water and sanitation. On the third day, only passengers and elderly neighborhood evacuees were provided helicopter airlifts and staff had to walk across the inundated area to get out of the zone.

Next stop the Natori City Cultural Hall, which serves as the shelter for the survivors who have lost their homes in an area northeast of the airport called Yuriage. Very discouraging place with over 300 people separated into cubicles with 4 foot cardboard packing boxes, sleeping on the floor with their few belongings around them. Many have been living this way for over 6 weeks. We spent the afternoon interviewing willing evacuees to get a sense of the factors that triggered them to evacuate, how they evacuated and what made them think an area was safe. Several themes emerged from their responses. There was more time between feeling the earthquake and the tsunami flooding than I had been led to believe. A series of timed photographs made from the roof on an elementary school that served as an evacuation site clear shows the first flooding just before 4 PM, the same time the airport was hit. Almost no one said they began to evacuate after feeling the earthquake. Many headed from safe areas back into the hazard area to contact relatives. The decision to evacuate in most cases came after hearing the JMA tsunami warning of significant waves. And almost everyone evacuated by car. Of course we didn’t get to interview those who failed to successfully evacuate.

Tonight we are staying at a mountain hotel in the hills behind Iwanuma. It only just reopened because of earthquake damage and persistent power outages. It does have a hot springs, which I am about to partake of.

Japan Reconnaissance - Day -3

Posted on May 02 2011

I met up with my Japanese host and colleague Megumi Sugimoto – a postdoctoral scholar at Tokyo University. She was working in Indonesia in 2004 and joined one of the first teams to visit Aceh. She has been working on a tsunami mitigation project in Padang for the last several years and was with the first group to visit the Mentawai Islands after last October’s tsunami. That was a so-called “tsunami earthquake” – where the ground shaking doesn’t feel very strong but the tsunami is large. Her work convinced me to emphasize how long the earthquake lasts rather than how strong it feels. Tsunami earthquakes may not shake very strongly but they still last a long time.

Megumi has been working in the tsunami-hit area for several weeks now and it’s been very informative to see it through her eyes. There is more earthquake damage than I first thought. Most of it is non-structural – cracks in walls and at the corners of doors and windows, heavy tile roofs that are now covered with tarps, building facades neatly covered with enormous mesh sheets to hide the construction work being done behind. The cleanup of the earthquake damage has proceeded so quickly that it is hard to recognize. She tells me that there is much more earthquake damage in Fukishima Prefecture, but we won’t be working there because of the nuclear plant.

Today we rent a car – a brand new Mazda that we are told not to get sandy – and head towards the Sendai coast near the airport. The airport, located slightly more than half a mile from the coast, suffered major damage in the tsunami estimated to have reached 32 feet. You can see it Here. And the before and after pictures can be seen Here. 1300 people were trapped at the airport for two days. The airport reopened on April 13 in large part due to the assistance of the US military. It was rather bizarre to see an island of well-dressed passengers headed to and from the airport in the midst of total devastation. We wanted to check out the fate of a grove of pine trees that had been planted about 15 years ago as a “tsunami forest”. Some scientists have argued that a sufficiently large grove of trees can dissipate tsunami energy. Unfortunately this grove didn’t have a chance. Most of the trees had been neatly snapped about a foot above the ground and now were mere indicators of the flow direction.

Next stop Matsushima, considered one of the three most beautiful ocean views in all Japan (the other two are Miyajima off of Hiroshima and Amanohashidate near Kyoto City). This picturesque vacation town inside Matsushima Bay was nearly untouched by the tsunami. Waters surged over a five foot wall and several hundred feet into the town but not sufficient to cause much damage. The shape of the bay protected the town from brunt of the tsunami. The town has well-signed evacuation routes leading people to the most beautiful evacuation shelter I’ve ever seen – the Zen Meditation Center within the 13th century Zuiganji Temple grounds. For five days many tourists were sheltered at the temple. Because the town had so little damage, it served as a staging area to launch relief efforts in the much harder hit areas to the north and south. Matsushima was very busy today – with a large film crew, a beauty queen, and several large mascot-sized creatures – all celebrating the reopening of the Matsushima ferry service.

Last stop was East Matsushima just north of Matsushima Bay and unfortunately exposed to the triple whammy of the Pacific Ocean, River, and a canal system. After the beauty of Matsushima, it was a blow to be plunged again into devastation.

Just felt a light aftershock, a 4.8, 65 miles east of here – my first since being in Japan.

Japan Reconnaissance - Day -2

Posted on April 30 2011

Sunday May 1
Slept 10 hours and spent much of morning downloading as many reports I could find on the Tohoku-oki earthquake (or Great East Japan earthquake in its English translation). One report summarizes the demographics of the victims. 92% are attributed to the tsunami, 4.5% to falling objects and structural failures, and the remainder due to fire. This is based only on bodies recovered – assuming all the missing are attributed to the tsunami, the tsunami victims increase to 97%. If there had been no tsunami, the casualties would have been less than 700. Of the victims, nearly two-thirds were over age 60, and more than half over 70. This really brings up issues about mobility and the ability to self-evacuate in a near-source event when time is very short. Took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Sendai. The train was unusually crowded. This is “Golden Week” in Japan – a week the encompasses a number of National holidays including the Emperor’s Birthday (until 1988), Constitution Memorial Day, Greenery Day, and Children’s Day. Many people get the whole week off and many have chosen to spend their vacations volunteering in the tsunami hit areas. Yomiuri Shimbun estimates as many as 8000 volunteers a day to invade the area, more than three times the typical average before this week. Volunteerism has plusses and minuses. There is much to be done – assisting in shelters, distributing aid, working on cleanup – but coordinating large numbers of untrained people puts additional stress on the situation. My real work begins tomorrow.

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