Emergency training

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.

Before the tsunami came

After it shook so much, we immediately thought a tsunami would come because of all the disaster prevention education we’d received, but we couldn’t have imagined it would be this bad.

We had just started doing large-scale disaster drills at the Disaster Volunteer Center on March 2nd, so we figured we could stay out of the wind and rain here, and we had food, and even if we had to stay it would just be for two or three days. We just assumed we would be fine if we stayed here.

After the earthquake, we started putting up disaster response tents in the parking lot in front of Nozomi, and then it started snowing.

We were talking with each other saying, “We’ll probably have to serve rice too, so we’d better get ready quickly,” and then evacuees from the region came in droves.

How trainees were at the evacuation center

The trainees looked kind of lost not knowing what exactly happened, and as I recall, I was feeling the same. We were all shocked by that huge tremor we had just experienced. We were also worried, I think, about what would happen next.

No one lost control nor scream or things like that. I remember that the ones who were usually kind of frivolous at evacuation drills also listened to staff’s directions carefully. I felt the evacuation process went much more smoothly than I had expected, and it is something I remember well even now.

I guess people understood we were facing a severe situation. We shared a sense that something extraordinary had just happened. Frankly to say however, I was not convinced about the possibility of tsunami at that moment. We evacuated to follow due process. This, I still think, was my lack of awareness toward those incidents.

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.


Where were you and what were you doing the day of the Great East Japan Earthquake?

When the shaking started, I was with my wife in our home in Yuriage, Natori City. I was 70 years old at the time and had retired, so I wasn’t working.


How did you evacuate?

We didn’t have any evacuation information at all at the time. We thought we might be the only ones who didn’t have the information because we can’t hear, but our hearing neighbors didn’t know either, so we actually couldn’t even judge whether we should evacuate or not.


Around how far was your house from the ocean?

Around 800 meters. It was about 3-4 minutes from Mount Hiyori in Yuriage, Natori City.


Did you imagine a tsunami might come?

I didn’t think about it.

I was born and raised in Yuriage, and previously there had never been a tsunami even when there had been earthquakes. I hadn’t heard anything about tsunamis from my parents either, so this was really the first time for me. We also never had any neighborhood evacuation drills, and were never taught anything about earthquakes.


So what made you feel the situation was dangerous enough to evacuate?

This earthquake was bigger than any one before, and it kept shaking again and again after that, so I thought maybe a tsunami could come. We went to the field nearby to see what the local residents were doing. We also encouraged our neighbors to evacuate with us, but it didn’t seem like they were going to act. It started shaking as we were talking, and meanwhile my older brother who lived nearby came to check on us. Apparently he assumed we had evacuated but came to check just in case, and was surprised to find us still at home. Then he told us to evacuate right away because a tsunami was coming.