Tsunami Warning Sends Okinawa Residents, Tourists Rushing to Higher Ground

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People evacuate to the upper floors of a department store in Naha on Wednesday morning.

A major tsunami warning was issued for the main island of Okinawa as well as Miyako Island and the Yaeyama area of Okinawa Prefecture after a powerful earthquake struck Taiwan on Wednesday morning.

Local residents evacuated to higher ground or the upper floors of buildings, watching the sea with anxious faces.

In central Naha, many residents and tourists rushed to the upper floors of the city hall and a department store. At the beach in the village of Yomitan, located on the west coast of Okinawa’s main island, it was announced that a tsunami warning had been issued and people were advised to evacuate to a nearby hotel.

Tourists who had been out swimming or talking a walk since morning rushed to a nearby building. With walkie-talkies in hand, lifeguards were busy gathering information and checking whether anyone was left on the beach.

Using a community radio system for disaster prevention, the Ishigaki city government urged people to evacuate in Japanese, English and Chinese on Ishigaki Island. “Many residents evacuated quickly, because it was just this January that the Noto Peninsula was hit by tsunami after a major earthquake,” a city official said.

A 45-year-old man who runs a marine sports store in Miyakojima City on Miyako Island said he immediately fled by car with his wife and their 1-year-old son as soon as the tsunami warning was issued.

“My shop is located right in front of the sea,” he said. “So I was scared when the tsunami alarm went off over and over again.”

The Self-Defense Forces worked to gather information, deploying a fighter jet and a helicopter. Aerial reconnaissance did not confirm any major damage on the islands of Miyako, Iriomote, Ishigaki, Kume, Yonaguni and Tarama in the prefecture.

About 30 residents evacuated to the Air Self-Defense Force’s Onna Sub Base in the village of Onna and about 40 private vehicles to the Miyakojima Sub-Base in Miyakojima, according to the bases.

All flights were suspended from landing at Naha Airport at 9:25 a.m., according to the airport’s management office. Airline companies said flights headed for the airports of Naha, Ishigaki, Miyako and other areas either returned to their point of departure or changed their destinations. Departures from the airports were cancelled through Wednesday afternoon.

“We observed tsunami,” said Japan Meteorological Agency official Shigeki Aoki at a press conference Wednesday morning. “We urge people in coastal areas or by the river to immediately evacuate to higher ground.

Taiwan prone to quakes

Taiwan is known for its high level of seismic activity, being located near the boundary between the Eurasian Plate on the Eurasian Continent side and the Philippine Sea Plate on the Pacific side.

In 1999, a strong earthquake hit central Taiwan, killing more than 2,400 people. In 2016, a massive earthquake struck Tainan, causing a 16-story building to collapse. More than 100 people were killed in the earthquake.

“Magnitude-6 or greater earthquakes have occurred at least once a year near the hypocenter of Wednesday’s earthquake, but quakes at or above magnitude 7.5 are rare,” said Fumihiko Imamura, a professor of tsunami engineering at Tohoku University. “The seabed gets shallower in the direction of Okinawa from the hypocenter, and tsunami can easily increase in power. There is a high possibility that a tsunami of around 1 meter could be observed.”