Disaster prevention

Living in evacuation at Shichigo Elementary

Around how long did you stay at Shichigo Elementary?

We were there for 10 days after the earthquake with our trainees.


Were you able to secure a place to stay?

We were able to get into one of the school’s rooms. There just happened to be some people from the same Arahama area there. When we went inside and found some places to sit down for the moment, they were there next to us.


How did the trainees do in the evacuation center?

I think they were worried, but they looked calm. When I asked them why, they said it was because they had done evacuation drills at the workshop, and they knew I had been studying disaster prevention for a long time, so that helped them to feel a little more at ease.

Disaster prevention awareness

I took a disaster volunteer coordinator course as part of my studies. A volunteer coordinator is a person who takes a leadership position to manage people who come to volunteer at an evacuation center in the event of a disaster. The coordinator needs to have knowledge of disasters, the types of needs that can arise, and how to manage an evacuation center. I learned how to run a reception desk and manage a shelter through role playing.

For example, in this course you learn how to use damaged homes and whatever you have to rescue people and keep activities going when you have no proper equipment, how to get past this kind of situation, how to manage a shelter, and so on. I had been interested in disaster prevention for a long time, and had been learning about it for a few years.

Long before the disaster happened, I often told our trainees about what I’d learned. I think this accumulated so the trainees themselves felt like they would be fine because I had studied these things.

So at that time they often asked me what they should do next.

I really feel glad I studied all this. I had thoroughly prepared disaster prevention equipment and secured all the furniture because of what I’d learned, so not a single thing fell over and no one was injured.

If even one person had been injured then, we would have been late evacuating because we would have had to tend to that person, and I think the tsunami would have gotten us. And if you let the people who are okay evacuate first, you end up splitting into a few groups. I think our initial response was good because we were able to evacuate without a single injured person. In some ways my preparations and learning paid off.


What inspired you to start your studies?

It had been common knowledge for many years that an earthquake would happen in Miyagi Prefecture, so I had a personal interest in disaster prevention studies. We have to protect our trainees, so it was natural that I was making all these preparations for disaster prevention.

Preparations for future

It is said that that earthquake was one which would happen in a thousand years. However, no one should say for sure that we won’t experience it again. As the ones who actually experienced it, we have an obligation to prepare ourselves better for such disasters and we need to build a system to better protect our trainees. Frankly to say, we are not yet totally prepared. It was rather a hard experience, and we need to learn lessons from it I think.

On the other hand, I wonder what it entails to be totally prepared.

At Sakura Gakuen, as it is located very close to the coast, we can’t do anything against the water once things like that disaster happen. Only option will be to escape. In one of our evacuation drills, once a year, we all walk to the elementary school supposing that the situation doesn’t allow us to use our cars. We need to know how far each of the trainees can walk including the ones who are not good walkers.

One of our trainees barely reached the entrance of the supermarket and felt exhausted at the evacuation drill in the first year. The same person could get to the crossing behind the supermarket in the next year, then to the top of a small hill a little further away the following year. And in the fourth year, the person finally walked all the way to the elementary school. We need to know how far each trainee can walk so that we can avoid any accidents by forcing people beyond what they can do.

We won’t be able to know exactly how much preparation is enough but we know the bottom line for survival. We have prepared ourselves for this level in our drills.

Ms. Yanagibashi’s thoughts

What are your thoughts for now and the future after your experience with the disaster?

Yanagibashi: Experiencing the disaster made me realize we can’t be off guard even though we live inland. I want to make sure we can respond, whether we’re shuttling our trainees or busy with other activities, based on where to flee to if such and such happens. We are actually working on evacuation maps and disaster response manuals. We’re focusing our efforts on those sorts of things while thinking about how we can protect our trainees.

We’ve been told that even if the canal overflows (due to a tsunami), the water probably won’t even reach one meter. But I can’t really say it’s okay for our trainees to be left standing even in less than one meter of water. I want to focus on evacuation training including our employees so we can figure out how to protect our trainees in that kind of situation.

Some of our trainees still get nauseous or panic during evacuation drills. Even though they’re alive and nothing has happened to their families, just hearing “It’s an earthquake” or “It’s a fire” startles them and makes them go stiff because they see a disaster situation. They remember 3/11. I think what they’re remembering is the time they were separated from their parents and spent a few days feeling terrible. I hope they can overcome those things a little at a time, and that we can stay by their sides and get stronger along with them.