City's concrete 'protector' fails to stop killer tsunami

March 21, 2011

By HARUHIKO YOSHIMURA / Staff Writer

MIYAKO, Iwate Prefecture--For decades, it was the pride of the Taro district of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture--a giant double-wall levee that had long protected the townsfolk from disasters spawned at sea.

But the coastal levee, 10 meters tall, 3 meters wide and running for 2.4 kilometers, crumbled in the March 11 tsunami.

Some survivors said residents may have placed too much faith in the levee, known locally as "the Great Wall," leading to a higher number of dead and missing people.

"The tsunami's height was twice that of the levee," said Giichi Kobayashi, a 76-year-old fisherman in the district, his face stiffening.

Kobayashi rushed to the levee soon after the magnitude-9.0 quake struck, thinking he would be safe. But when he saw the mountain of water roaring toward the coastline, he turned around and fled to higher ground.

Kobayashi escaped harm, but his home was washed away after the waves spilled over and destroyed parts of the levee.

"The levee always gave us a sense of security. Perhaps there were many who ended up being caught by the tsunami because they thought, 'We are safe because of the levee,'" Kobayashi said. "We will have to build a higher wall if we are going to continue living here."

The Taro district, home to about 4,400 people, has been called "Tsunami Taro (Boy)" among the locals for its history of being hit by killer waves.

In the 1896 Meiji Sanriku Tsunami, 1,859 people in the town perished, while 911 people died in the Showa Sanriku Tsunami of 1933.

Construction of the giant levee began in 1934 and was completed in 1978. The project cost about 5 billion yen in terms of the currency's value in 1980.

The levee, one of the longest in Japan, comprises two walls: one on the seaside and the other toward the land. According to Iwate prefectural government officials, such a double-walled levee is unheard-of around the world.

Overseas researchers have even visited the Taro district to inspect the levee.

While some Japanese areas suffered casualties in the tsunami following a massive earthquake in Chile in 1960, the Taro district was spared largely thanks to the levee.

But the barrier was no match for the latest tsunami.

A 500-meter segment of the seaside wall collapsed, and concrete debris remains scattered in the bay.

A 45-year-old resident said the levee "looked like a toy in the face of the tsunami."

"I don't know if we can continue living in Taro after experiencing that tsunami," he said.

He also said many of his neighbors remain missing.

Haruo Kawato, a 69-year-old fisherman in the district, said living beside the sea is preferable for his line of work.

"But perhaps we may have to move to higher ground," he said.

The city of Miyako had declared itself a model city for tsunami preparedness. The disaster is forcing Miyako to start over.

"We have no idea of how to set up tsunami countermeasures now," said Toshio Torii, 59, an official at the municipal government's regional development office. "The levee was constructed based on experience from past tsunami. The latest disaster exceeded all expectations."

By HARUHIKO YOSHIMURA / Staff Writer
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The remains of what residents called Japan's strongest coastal levee in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. Concrete blocks that formed part of the wall lie in the background. (Photo by Haruhiko Yoshimura)

The remains of what residents called Japan's strongest coastal levee in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. Concrete blocks that formed part of the wall lie in the background. (Photo by Haruhiko Yoshimura)

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  • The remains of what residents called Japan's strongest coastal levee in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. Concrete blocks that formed part of the wall lie in the background. (Photo by Haruhiko Yoshimura)
  • Blocks from the coastal levee in a district of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, are scattered in Taro Port. (Photo by Jun Ueda)

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