5 years after earthquake, residents publish book on unsafe evacuation spot

KESENNUMA, Miyagi – About 30 per cent of the people in Kessenuma’s Suginoshita district perished or went missing in the Great East Japan Earthquake and the subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011. Now residents of the district are planning to publish a book at their own expense about the tragedy that took so many lives.

The book will be published on the fifth anniversary of the disaster on March 11, and comprise the reminisces of the families of 93 victims in the district. Many of the victims were swept away by the tsunami that inundated a hill designated by the Kesennuma municipal government as an evacuation site. A woman who lost her father interviewed the families of the victims.

Former resident Atsuko Onodera, 54, came up with the project to publish the book. „I want the next generation of people to understand that many lives were lost at a place the city had designated for evacuation in emergencies,“ Onodera said.

On the day the earthquake occurred, Onodera was in the centre of the city on business. Following the earthquake, she hurried to Suginoshita Takadai, a hill 11 meters above sea level, to check on her parents who lived with her. However, she left the hill by car after hearing someone shout that a tsunami was coming. Her mother was found safe as she had evacuated to a different place, but the tsunami killed her 80-year-old father near the hill.

Before the disaster, 312 people belonging to 93 households lived in the district. Afterward, the residents dispersed. Onodera has visited each of them since spring 2013 in attempt to record their memories of what happened.

„We thought the tsunami wouldn’t reach up there,“ said Shukuko Miura, a 70-year-old woman who lost her house on the hill. „That was a fatal mistake.“

It had been reported that the hill was not affected by tsunami caused by Sanriku coast earthquakes in the Meiji and Showa eras, so Suginoshita Takadai was excluded by the prefectural government from the list of places that would be flooded by tsunami caused by an earthquake off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture.

The Kesennuma city government also designated it as an evacuation area after holding talks with local residents. The residents held evacuation drills, which included escaping to the hill, twice a year.

Immediately after the quake, Miura let residents fleeing the tsunami into a greenhouse near her home. After that, however, she was sucked under by the tsunami at her home. When she regained consciousness, Miura found herself lying under debris.

Her husband, Shozo Miura, 67, was killed when he drove a car to evacuate elderly people to a higher place.

„We don’t want any more unforeseen events in regard to disasters,“ Onodera said. „We must pass down to our children and grandchildren what happened to our hometown.“

She interviewed or received contributed stories from 60 residents in the district. On behalf of a group of relatives of disaster victims, Onodera decided to publish a book titled „Towa ni Suginoshita no Kioku“ (Memories of Suginoshita forever). Several hundred copies are to be printed and distributed to local residents.

Prepare life jackets

The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami killed many people who fled to evacuation places designated by local governments.

According to the Miyagi prefectural government, 220, or 22 per cent, of 1,021 evacuation places designated by 15 municipalities along the coast were inundated by tsunami. For example, 54 people were killed at a two-story building that housed the branch office of the Ishinomaki city government and the community centre in the city’s Kitakami district.

According to a report on the disaster compiled by the Rikuzen-Takata city government, 303 to 411 people were killed at nine designated evacuation places such as a civic hall and a gymnasium.

„The city should seriously reflect on its failure to review the designation of evacuation sites because it accepted the prefecture’s tsunami forecast without a shadow of doubt and trusted blindly that tsunami would never be larger than forecast,“ the report said.

„Designated evacuation places are not always safe,“ said Prof. Fumihiko Imamura of Tohoku University, who specializes in engineering to deal with tsunami. „Every possible safety measure should be taken, such as preparing life jackets and boats to escape in emergencies.

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