By Hler Gudjonsson, IFRC
On March 11, 2011 the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami struck Yamada town, in Japan’s northern prefecture of Iwate. It was early in the afternoon and the children of Osawa Nursery School were just waking up from their afternoon naps. The teachers scrambled to evacuate the terrified children. Noriko Kawabata, the school principal, who had lived by the sea in Yamada town her whole life, knew that after an earthquake of this scale, there is always the risk of a tsunami.
“I was the last one out of the building. I had to make sure that no child had been left behind, and as I rushed after the children up to the evacuation center, I could hear this loud roar behind me. I did not look back, but I knew what it was,” she said with a shudder.
Some of the children who had already been picked up from the school died with their parents, but luckily none of the teachers or children remaining in the school was seriously hurt. All of them made it safely to the evacuation shelter, but the school was damaged beyond repair and the elderly principal realized that the workplace to which she had devoted 39 years of her life was gone.
“The first year after the disaster was the most difficult, because initially we had no money to build a new school,” said Mrs. Kawabata, “but somehow I felt that all the hardship made me stronger, and never for a moment did I think that I should start looking for another job. Since I was young, I knew that I would always work here at this school.”
After months of searching for funds to restore her school, she finally found the support that was needed. The Japanese Red Cross Society stepped in and supported the rebuilding of the school and for over two years now, the elegant new structure has been filled with the shouts and laughter of dozens of small children.
“I told the architects that I wanted a bright and open structure, with windows facing south to allow plenty of natural light to enter the building,” she says with pride as she shows the spacious playroom to visitors.
Outside Osawa Nursery School, parents are gathering to pick up their children as the school day comes to a close.
“This school is really a vital part of the social services here in Yamada town,” says Atsushi Okawa, a 34 year old fisherman. Mr. Okawa spends most of his day at sea while his 5 year old boy is entrusted to the devoted staff at the little school.
“I was just back from shrimp fishing and had just gone out with my friends when we felt the earthquake,” said Mr Okawa. “I immediately thought of looking for my family, but because I am also a volunteer in the fire department it was my responsibility to close the water barrier, in case a tsunami would follow in the wake of the earthquake.”
Unfortunately the water barrier was not high enough to stop the enormous wave from hitting the town. Mr. Okawa’s house was completely destroyed, along with much of the town’s vital infrastructure, such as health facilities and Osawa Nursery School which he had attended as a little boy.
Many of the children at the school are from families who have their homes close to the water. Many of these families suffered greatly after the tsunami and are still struggling with a range of problems. On top of the material damage and the loss of life, the disaster left many with mental scars that do not heal easily.
“My older son remembers very well when we lost our house and he is still very afraid of earthquakes,” says 34 years old Shingo Sasaki, who is also a fisherman.
The tsunami destroyed the houses of Mr. Okawa but four years on, he has built new home for himself.
“It was quite difficult for me to get a loan in the beginning because I am self-employed and don’t have a regular income,” said the tanned and weathered Mr. Okawa, “it took me a while but eventually I succeeded in overcoming the challenges and have built a new life for my family.”
New houses are springing up all around, and land is being cleared on higher ground to make room for new buildings. The land separating the Osawa Nursery School from the sea has been cleared of the debris left behind by the tsunami, and there is a spirit of optimism in the town.
“Yamada town will of course never be the same, but our lives are returning to normal, and thanks to the Red Cross we have a new and beautiful school building,” says Mrs. Kawabata smiling broadly.