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Helped by Entire Community, 570 Fled to Safety after Great East Japan Earthquake

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nodoka Kikuchi is seen at the Tsunami Memorial Hall in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, on Jan. 5. “I was able to evacuate thanks to people in the community,” she said.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the behavior of junior high school students in the Unosumai district of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, became well-known as a model for evacuation.

They helped elementary school students while escaping to higher ground.

However, 25-year-old Nodoka Kikuchi, who was a third-year student at Kamaishi-Higashi junior high at the time, has always been unsure how she feels about this characterization. “They call it the ‘Miracle of Kamaishi.’ In reality, while we were worried about the elementary school students, we evacuated without them first,” she said.

After the tremors subsided, about 210 students including Kikuchi went out into their schoolyard where then-Vice Principal Yoko Murakami screamed, “Forget the roll call, run!”

There was no movement at the neighboring Unosumai elementary school. “It’s dangerous if they stay in the building,” Kikuchi thought. She and her friends shouted at the neighboring school, “A tsunami’s coming, run,” but there was no answer. “If a tsunami comes, we won’t be able to save ourselves,” she thought. She and her friends had no choice but to run.

Just as they left the schoolyard, Makoto Nihonmatsu, 57, a local volunteer firefighter, drove his car into the grounds of the elementary school, which his two children attended. When he rushed into the school building, he found that most of the students were in the process of moving to the third floor. “What are you doing? Hurry up and evacuate to higher ground!” Hearing him shout, the teachers quickly told the students to go outside.

After confirming that the nearby floodgates were closed, Nihonmatsu returned to the school building with his fellow firefighters. The power outage had disabled the school broadcasting system and they worried that there might be people who had failed to escape. Sure enough, they found several children and teachers on the second floor. In the nurse’s office, there was a young boy in trouble who had lost his shoes. Nihonmatsu tapped him on the rear and said: “Don’t worry about your shoes. You can run barefoot.”

The junior high and elementary school students headed for the parking lot of a nursing facility about 800 meters away. This was a temporary evacuation point that had been used repeatedly in drills. Kikuchi was relieved when she saw the elementary students. It was from there that the junior high students took the younger students by the hand and headed for higher ground together with local residents.

Seven years after that frightful day, Kikuchi learned how all the children were able to evacuate the elementary school, but she also heard there was a lot of help during the evacuation. “The locals helped us escape,” she thought. The following year, Kikuchi became an employee of the Tsunami Memorial Hall in Unosumai.

■ Correct judgment and instructions

About 570 people, mainly students at Unosumai Elementary School and Kamaishi Higashi Junior High School, ran for safety as a tsunami approached, heading toward a mountain pass 1.6 kilometers away. They were helped along the way by volunteer firefighters and area residents.

This miraculous escape was the result of thorough preparation. The Unosumai district in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, had been struck by many tsunami in the past, leading to the establishment of a community-wide mutual aid system that conducted joint drills involving local schools and residents.

After hurriedly escaping from their schools, the students reached the Gozaisho-no-Sato nursing care facility, which is a temporary evacuation center, to join parents and neighbors who had also gathered there. On local roads congested with cars, the children were guided by residents and teachers, who asked the cars’ drivers to let the children go ahead. Junior high school students reassured terrified children from lower grades.

Shin Saito, now 48, was a teacher at the junior high school. He was counting the number of students at the facility when an elderly female resident suddenly pulled on his hand and warned: “Children will die if they stay here. The cliff is collapsing.” Saito saw pebbles falling from the hill behind the facility.

After hearing the situation from Saito, then deputy principal Yoko Murakami, now 63, decided to move everyone to the Yamazaki Day Service Home for the elderly about 300 meters away. Immediately afterward, the coastal area of Unosumai was flooded by an 11-meter-high tsunami.

When they arrived at the day service home and teachers were about to hold a meeting in its parking lot, volunteer firefighter Makoto Nihonmatsu, 57, shouted: “There’s no time for that. The water is almost here.”

Children and adults alike saw clouds of spray. Screams erupted of “No, no!” and “Run!” The people there immediately split into two groups, one going to a hill and the other to the mountain pass.

The younger children were put in the group going to the hill. There was no path, so they had to climb a steep slope about two meters high. Ken Sato, 49, was in this group with his sixth-grade daughter Momoka. He and other residents worked together to push through weeds and tree branches to get the small children up the hill. Momoka was crying because she was worried about her brother Shigeru, who is two years younger and was not in the same group. Sato said to Momoka: “Don’t worry. I’m sure he must have escaped safely.”

Both Momoka and Shigeru survived. She is now 22 and her younger brother 20.

The fourth- and fifth-graders and junior high school students going to the mountain pass also struggled up a long, steep slope. Some students noticed there were nursery school children behind them. They held some children in their arms to reassure them, and one student volunteered to push a cart carrying young children for the nursery school staff.

When the tsunami receded, the group that had fled to the hill moved to the mountain pass, where Momoka was able to see her brother. As the sun set, it began to snow heavily. Muddy water covered the ground almost up to the day service home, blocking the people’s way back to the city. Shigeru, who was only 10, thought uneasily: “This is really different from the training. What will happen to us now?”

Near the mountain pass is the Sanriku coastal highway, which had opened to traffic just six days earlier. Nihonmatsu climbed up the slope and cut the fence there with pliers. The children passed through the opening to enter the highway. A while after they started walking toward the city, a pumper truck driven by Shuetsu Kubo, 61, stopped in front of them. Dump trucks and other vehicles also arrived one after another, in response to the volunteer firefighting team’s call by radio.

■ Training in community, high awareness

After being rescued by the trucks and other vehicles on the coastal highway, the students arrived at the gymnasium of the shuttered Kamaishi Daiichi Junior High School, an evacuation center four kilometers away. Some of the students moved from there to another evacuation center, where they cleaned up and made evacuee cards to use to confirm people’s safety.

The goal set by Kamaishi Higashi Junior High School was “changing from people who are assisted by others, to people who help others.”

Before the earthquake, the school had conducted joint evacuation drills with elementary schools. It had also held drills to transport the injured in cooperation with firefighting personnel, among other efforts. Students at the school had heard from local residents about their disaster experiences and seen photos from past disasters at a local history museum.

Nodoka Kikuchi, 25, who graduated from the junior high school, said, “I came to think about how I should act [in disasters] on my own.”

The Kamaishi municipal government began to emphasize education in disaster countermeasures in 2004. The year before, the coastal area of Iwate Prefecture where Kamaishi is located had been hit by a strong earthquake measuring lower 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7. The city was concerned about the low percentage of residents who evacuated at that time.

Each school in the city worked on tsunami countermeasures.

Kamaishi Elementary School is located on a hill in central Kamaishi, but many of its students live in zones that are expected to be inundated. Even before the 2011 disaster, the school had already been holding return-home evacuation drills for the students.

The students made maps of the routes between their homes and the school by themselves, and checked their respective evacuation sites. The school also conducted many drills on the premise that a tsunami warning had been issued when the students were on their way back home.

When the earthquake occurred, most of the 184 students had already left school for home. They evacuated from where they were, such as a harbor where they were fishing and a park where they were playing. No one was killed in the disaster.

Rimiko Sawada, 19, was in the third grade at the time and playing at a friend’s house when the disaster struck. She persuaded her friend’s grandparents, who were reluctant to evacuate, to join her and her friend in fleeing to higher ground. “I had memorized evacuation sites and dangerous places, so I wasn’t panicked,” she said.

The actions of the children in Kamaishi have become a national example and are even featured in school textbooks.

The Kamaishi case caused the municipal government of Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, which is expected to be hit by a massive earthquake in the Nankai Trough, to realize the need to foster children’s ability to make decisions and take action in times of disaster.

The municipal government holds workshops for children from different schools and in different age groups to exchange opinions on such topics as “If a family member is seriously injured and a preschooler is in cardiopulmonary arrest in a disaster, which one should be sent to the hospital first?”

Hiroshi Kamikihara, a supervisor in the school education department of the city’s board of education, said, “We want to enhance the children’s ability to survive and their future disaster preparedness.”

■ Assistance for handicapped

There is a principle in the Sanriku region called “tsunami tendenko.” It is an ironclad rule that people should evacuate individually, focusing on their own survival, and assume that their family members have evacuated safely. The children in Kamaishi acted exactly that way. However, there is a problem with this approach.

Shunji Kikuchi, 73, of Kamaishi, lives with his daughter Yuko, 37, who is severely handicapped and needs a respirator. They and their house were not harmed in the tsunami following the quake.

When asked by the city’s social welfare council later about whether they would evacuate in another disaster, he replied in the negative. There is a welfare shelter facility six kilometers away for people who need assistance in disasters, but it has no medical equipment. Kikuchi has given up driving due to his old age, which makes it difficult for him to get around.

He says that the principle of escaping individually will not work for him and his daughter.

In 2013, the central government revised the Basic Law on Natural Disasters to require municipalities to formulate an evacuation plan for each handicapped person, specifying their evacuation procedures. According the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency, 38%, or 650 municipalities, have yet to draw up such plans.

In Kamaishi, individual plans have been prepared only for 52 of the 377 people who need assistance.

Beppu, Oita Prefecture, is known for its advanced program of “inclusive disaster countermeasures” to make sure everyone is rendered assistance during disasters. Here, handicapped people and their families participate in local evacuation planning, training to see if they can evacuate as planned, and making necessary improvements.

A woman who participated in one such event with her mentally challenged son was surprised to see her son pushing a wheelchair carrying a physically challenged person during an escape drill.

She said, “I thought we always need to be helped by other people, but I’ve realized that we can help other people, too.”

Junko Murano, a disaster countermeasure education specialist at the municipal government, said: “These events have changed the awareness of many residents associations in the city.”

“The handicapped often hesitate to express their requests. It’s important for local communities and governments to reach out to these people,” said Akiyoshi Yamada, 78, an adviser to the social welfare corporation AJU Jiritsu no Ie in Nagoya that has been supporting people with disabilities in disaster areas.

The late Fumio Yamashita was a tsunami historian in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, who popularized the teaching of tsunami tendenko. Yamashita wrote in a book: “The evacuation and safety of people vulnerable to disasters should not be limited to their households but should be taken up as an issue for the entire community and solved through mutual cooperation. This is the only way to resolve this problem.”