The Great East Japan Earthquake struck when the town assembly of Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, was in session. The shock came just as I had been talking about a jolt that hit several days before, and had just said, "Let us build a town that can better cope with a disaster."
We immediately moved to a three-story building next to the town hall for use as an emergency headquarters in the event of a disaster. No sooner had we confirmed that the temblor had an intensity of lower 6 (on the Japanese scale of 7) than word came that a 6-meter tsunami would hit around 3 p.m. We had only 10 minutes to prepare. We instructed townspeople via the community wireless system to evacuate to elevated areas.
We went up to the roof and looked out to sea. First, we saw yellow clouds of dust being stirred up, not water. Then came waves following the clouds. The floodgate was 8 meters high, but waves far higher came rushing at astonishing speed. The tsunami carried away one house after another, and soon the town hall collapsed.
About 30 people were on the roof with me, but we were all hurled aside in an instant. I was thrown to an outside staircase and clung to the railing for dear life. It seems that for about three minutes, waves gushed over my head. My head bobbed above water every two or three seconds, and I gulped for air at those moments. I was treading a fine line.
When the tsunami finally receded, only 10 of us were left. We didn't think we could survive a second tsunami, so we all climbed up the antenna towers on the roof. We were drenched to the bone and a blizzard was blowing. It was bitterly cold.
After the waves had subsided, we made a fire out of driftwood and our neckties. We spent the night on the roof. The next morning, we climbed down to the ground using ropes for fishing nets that clung to the skeletonized building. We went to a nearby elementary school, where we learned that we were counted as missing.
I am still wearing the same clothes as I wore that day; I do not have a change of clothes.
The devastation wrought by the tsunami was far greater than anyone had expected when drawing up the town's disaster management plan. It was based on the tsunami triggered by the 1960 Chilean earthquake that killed 41 people (in the town's Shizugawa area.)
We had anticipated a tsunami no higher than 6.5 meters in an earthquake expected offshore. I am sorry to say this, but not one of us had expected a disaster of this magnitude.
Now, nearly 10,000 people, or about half the town's population, are making do in temporary shelters, and the number is increasing day by day. We really appreciate the support extended by people all over the nation. It moves me to tears. People are sending relief supplies to a town they don't know. Nothing could be more encouraging.
But except for blankets, most supplies do not meet our needs. We are barely able to serve three meals a day. Foodstuffs are daily necessities, so frankly, there can never be enough.
Even those whose homes were not damaged in the tsunami are not able to go out to buy food, so some have moved in to temporary shelters where meager provisions are available. In that sense, not only those living in the shelters but all the townspeople are evacuees. Unless we view the situation that way, the distribution of supplies will not reach everyone.
One pleasing outcome is that an autonomous group has been formed at each shelter. Each group has leaders, and members are working according to a daily plan. At some shelters, evacuees prepare meals for themselves. Our communities have been built not by the administration but by the residents themselves. So people are taking the initiative. We only serve as their supporters.
But the rebuilding of the town will be a very tough challenge. For example, there is the question of where to rebuild the town hall. Some say it would be safer if we rebuild structures on a hill, but then what should we do with the plots obliterated by the tsunami? Even if we build new roads, clear the wasteland and rebuild structures, if only a few people return, then the town will not function.
Many of the town's residents are elderly. Can they afford to rebuild their homes? We may be able to rebuild infrastructure, such as roads, buildings and other key elements. But the question in people's minds, whether they are still willing to live in this town after such a disaster, is beyond us to handle.
I'm told that the land in the town has sunken. We must work to devise a grand design for the town in the future. But first, we must grasp the reality.
I suppose some townspeople will decide to leave this town or move out of the prefecture. Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai said he was considering offering assistance to residents who want to move out temporarily to live in other prefectures. In fact, this town has also received an offer from our friendship town of Shonai, Yamagata Prefecture, to accept those who want to move out. Basically, it is up to the townspeople to decide whether to move out. But we also must positively tackle the issue of temporary relocation.
We town staff are now working to support people in temporary shelters, nothing more. But we cannot move forward while having to take care of some 10,000 people in those shelters. As many as 36 town workers remain missing. Under the circumstances, we have no time to draw up a plan for the future.
What I would like to ask is for the central government to provide lending for those who want to rebuild their homes. Unless we can come up with a policy that will encourage people to rebuild their homes, rather than renting an apartment in Sendai or elsewhere, more townsfolk will leave for good.
I sincerely hope the government will come up with a system to provide appropriate funding; otherwise, our town will face a really critical situation.
Realistically, many townspeople will have no income. Some people lost their places of employment in the tsunami waves. Many self-employed people, fishermen and farmers have effectively lost their places of work. Those with some savings can cope, but not many will be able to do so under these circumstances.
We have to work on a long-term strategy, but without outside help the town cannot do much. Continued support would be really appreciated.
We have pursued our town's development since the damage that befell this town from the Chilean quake tsunami about 50 years ago. The town was once commended as having the best tourism campaign among all of Miyagi Prefecture's destinations. All those efforts were wiped out in an instant. For the foreseeable future, we must focus all our efforts on rebuilding the town.
There is no use lamenting what happened. We cannot escape from this reality. But I don't want to look back. Unless I look forward, the townspeople can't either. We have no choice but to look to the future.
(This commentary is written on the basis of an interview with Asahi Shimbun staff writer Kenichiro Shino)
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Jin Sato is mayor of Minami-Sanriku town, Miyagi Prefecture.
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