Mon | Oct 15, 2018

'Leave or die' - A devastated Japanese town fights back

Published:Sunday | November 12, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Frozen in time - A visitor takes photograph of a clock that was in the local school, which stopped at 3.46 pm, when a major earthquake struck on March 11, 2011
A school under construction in the new city of Higashimatsushima


For residents of Higashimatsushima in Japan, there was no question of whether to leave their homes in areas that were vulnerable to natural disasters.

Given the relative speed and unpredictability of an earthquake or tsunami, it was even more crucial to have a clear plan to get out and get out fast.

The town's mayor Iwao Atsumi said residents were simply presented with the position: 'if you want to live, you leave, if you want to die, you stay'. There is no room for negotiation.

"When the tsunami hits, the people have no option but to run away (to higher ground),"said Atsumi.

By the time the March 2011 tsunami hit, of the town's 43,132 residents, more than 15,000 considered in need of evacuation had already headed to 106 shelters in safe areas.




He said that the plan included strict instructions which were given to the residents and reinforced in drill by a team of community volunteers.

Municipal leaders cannot force a person to disclose his personal situation under Japan privacy laws, but Higashimatsushima insists that persons who need assistance indicate this so that they may be helped into a shelter.

With 65 per cent of the town inundated and approximately 73 per cent of all housing destroyed in some way, there was really no choice or place to stay.

The city recorded 1,109 dead and 24 missing. At 1,133, the figure represented three per cent of the city's population.

Tough decisions had to be made even though some residents, local fisherfolk in the area famous for conch and seaweed harvesting, had concerns about leaving their houses permanently.

"What we did was to designate the coastal area band as a restricted area and banned it as a residential area. The city has made it into its law and regulation, prohibiting people to live in this area," the mayor outlined.

But there have been concessions.

"There is a special land where people live, but they had to move away from the island but continued with their fishing. Also, the local government provided funding to relocate residents with land provided for building homes under an arrangement where (for) the first 30 years the land is provided to the people rent free," said Atsumi.

For persons who could afford to build their own house, for example, seniors, they are provided with housing at a special rate of roughly JMD$11,169 (10,000 yen) per month.

A new elementary school in the relocation area opened its doors in January 2016, while 1,001 residential apartment houses have already been completed and delivered.

Atsumi said that while they could not have imagined the scope of the earthquake and tsunami, they had learnt from previous disasters, especially a massive 1995 earthquake, which devastated parts of the city of Kobe.

"Once in every 35 to 40 years we expect something, so we are prepared for that, but this disaster was a one in 600-800 year event, so we were not prepared against the enormity of it," said Atsumi.




Pulling on that experience, the town crafted its own plan; large sorting areas - roughly the size of two football fields - were identified, with a designated dumping site where debris was sorted mostly by hand to help displaced workers earn.

A special 20-foot seawall has been constructed, and is specially designed to absorb a tsunami on its way into the town for the first time, and also as water recedes, which tends to happen in such circumstances.

A second wall was built about 1.5 kilometres further inland, with special diversion canals to feed the water back out to sea.

The city also installed seven solar-powered surveillance cameras along the seaside, which allows meteorologists to see incoming tsunamis and guide residents to even higher ground, based on the water phenomenon.

To power itself, a solar farm with 15,000 panels has been built, and provides power for 600 families, while producing 2.1 million kilowatt-hours per year.

But just as the city has learnt from the 1995 earthquake, the aim is to cover all the bases and make a model city in disaster recovery so that they may be able to help other areas.

It is a team effort which, so far, has pulled on other communities and the support of local residents in a game of survival.