By Denis McClean
SENDAI, 5 November, 2019 - Tsunami warning sirens sounded across the Sendai coastal plain this morning sending thousands of people to some 40 designated evacuation sites as Japan marked World Tsunami Awareness Day with many such drills.
In Sendai, a helicopter flew along the seashore over the designated Tsunami Inundation Area reinforcing the warning that a magnitude 9 earthquake had occurred off the coast.
Both the sea and city of Sendai were clearly visible from the top of the Minamo-Gamo evacuation tower where about 90 people gathered on the rooftop shortly after the sirens sounded, including older persons and many students from the local Middle School.
On March 11, 2011, Seiko Abe (77) evacuated to the local school to escape the tsunami waves triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and today she evacuated again, with her dog, and despite her limited mobility.
She said her legs hurt a little as she mounted the stairs of the evacuation tower which rises ten metres above the ground but she found the training useful and it made her feel safe. Ramps allow for wheelchair access.
Also participating in the exercise were children from nearby Takasago Middle School where tsunami awareness and disaster preparedness are given top priority by the teaching staff.
Riku Asano, a third grade student who lives in the neighbourhood, said he has learned many useful skills for disaster situations including CPR, how to use a fire extinguisher and how to set up a portable toilet.
“I live nearby so if I had to evacuate I would do so with my family. I don’t remember the 2011 tsunami and so much time has passed that it is good to hear the stories from the older people who did experience it. Hearing the stories is important and motivates us to continue the training.”
Kazune Matsuoka who is also in the third grade also agrees that it is good to hear stories from older persons. “It is important to go somewhere high when the warning comes. These trainings lead to good practices and makes sure that everyone knows the route.”
Munehiro Takahashi, a fire department officer working with Sendai city’s crisis management section, said that preparedness planning at the time of the 2011 earthquake was based on the experience of a smaller earthquake and one metre tsunami experienced in 1978 and this proved to be inadequate.
Another factor in the high death toll was some reluctance to evacuate given that there had been two tsunami alerts in the week before the March 11 tsunami which were not followed by any significant rise in sea level.
“We were not expecting the 2011 tsunami to be so large and because of that people were not as prepared as they needed to be. We have taken many actions since then including these regular exercises, building embankments and multiple defences including coastal levees, elevated roads, evacuation towers and hills, and evacuation stairs at five locations along the strategically important Sendai Tobu road,” said Mr. Takahashi through an interpreter.
There are also plans to provide tsunami warning messages in foreign languages as the area attracts a high number of overseas visitors.
This is the 4th year that the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has fostered the observance of World Tsunami Awareness Day following adoption of a UN General Assembly Resolution in 2016. Over 15,000 people died in the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami which also triggered a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
History shows that tsunamis though relatively rare, when they occur are the most deadly of all natural hazards.
The date recalls the November 5, 1854 tsunami that occurred as a result of the Ansei-Nankai earthquake in Wakayama Prefecture in western Japan. Every Japanese school child knows the story “Inamura no Hi” or The Fire of the Rice Sheaves. The story goes that after feeling the earthquake, Hamaguchi Goryo, a local leader in the village of Hiromura on the Kii Peninsula, anticipated a tsunami would come when he noticed the lowering of the tide and a rapid decrease in the level of well water.
He guided his fellow villagers to evacuate to higher ground by setting fire to his precious sheaves of rice, knowing that the villagers would run uphill to help put out the flames. He informed them of the tsunami risk and told them to make sure that everyone left the village for higher ground.