Evacuation and rescue 1

There was water up to the roofs below the pedestrian bridge we evacuated to, so we couldn’t get down even if we wanted to. Snow was also accumulating, and it was cold. The fire department arrived on the scene just before 5 p.m., but the area was so badly damaged that we weren’t actually rescued until 3:30 in the morning. We made it to our facility on the 13th. We could see the marks from the tsunami there, and it was a big mess inside.

The road in front of the office had also caved in, and it was like the water that came over the embankments had hit head-on. It was like the tsunami had come from both the ocean and the river at the same time.

Evacuation and rescue 2

We evacuated along the Sunaoshi riverbank. If we had evacuated to someplace farther from the river, I think we might have actually been swallowed up by the tsunami. Theory was useless in that disaster. If we had followed the directions to get away from the river, we might not exist in this world anymore. I really feel like that fork in the road determined our fate.

Evacuation and rescue 3

The saving grace of being rescued in the middle of the night was that our disabled trainees didn’t have to see the tragic scene. Some of them have really good memories.

We had a lot of intellectually disabled people in our facility, but not many of them lost their balance. They were just like, “Everything is gone,” or “It got washed away.”

They saved us when they said, “We want to do something. We have to try.”


Tsunami awareness

What did you do after the earthquake stopped? Were you aware of the risk of a tsunami?

We had thought about the risk of a tsunami. But although we were aware of it, we could have been more thorough in securing a safe place to evacuate.

We did anticipate the risk of a tsunami.


So you started giving directions to evacuate right away?

Yes. That’s right.


And your trainees followed your directions and started evacuating as a result of your daily drills?

Yes. Things went smoothly up until that point.

Deciding where to evacuate to

I hear you evacuated to an elementary school. Was that the established place you were supposed to go in the event of a tsunami?

Yes. We started by evacuating to our local Arahama Elementary School.

The evacuation location for Midori Workshop had been decided since before the disaster. But since we understood the risk of a tsunami, at that time we were still trying to determine a place that was guaranteed to be safe in consideration of that risk.

We had asked a disaster prevention expert about how to evacuate from a tsunami considering Arahama’s terrain, and were told that the structure of this region could cause a tsunami to rush in like a river.

There is a gas station at the end of a straight road from the swimming area on the beach, and buildings carried by the tsunami actually went crashing into it.

So the gas station filled up with debris, and when the second tsunami came in like a follow-up attack, the direction of the waves changed. So then the waves split up and went towards Shinmachi 2-chome, where our workshop is.

So that’s why our workshop building was carried off by the tsunami, and now there’s nothing left. The houses that remained safe were located slightly away from the tsunami’s path when it rushed in like a river.

We had thought about how to evacuate, but at that time we were still considering whether or not we should evacuate to Arahama Elementary School, which could be in the path of a tsunami. We hadn’t yet reached the final stage in deciding where exactly to go to escape a tsunami.


Did you go on foot to your first evacuation location?

We went both on foot and by car.


What was your process for evacuating?

There was a community center near the workshop. Behind that there was a park.

As we were going to evacuate, we heard the information that maybe wide spaces like parks with nothing in them would be safer.

Some people had evacuated to the park. When it’s shaking that much, you do feel like it would be safe someplace where there are no buildings and nothing to fall over.

If the earthquake had happened when we were supposed to go home from the workshop, our trainees might have decided to go to the park on their own judgment.

It’s scary now to think that if it had been left up to each person’s judgment, they might have just followed anyone who asked them to go along.


How many disabled trainees did you have when you evacuated?

That day, we had 7 trainees with us. Six of them evacuated with us. One person had already gone home before the earthquake happened, because the recreation had finished early. We evacuated with the trainees who were with us in the workshop.


Around how many minutes after that did the tsunami come?

After that, we fled not to Arahama Elementary School but to another elementary school inland, so we didn’t actually see the tsunami.


Was the decision to flee to that inland elementary school also a “just for now” type thing?

Yeah. The information we heard from the radio on the height of the tsunami was also changing by the hour.

Arahama Elementary was already very crowded when we got there. We couldn’t get into the school grounds by car, and traffic was jammed around the school. For those reasons, we took refuge in a convenience store near the school.

There was a heavily trafficked prefectural road nearby that was also jammed, and we thought there was no place for those people to evacuate but Arahama Elementary. We were worried that all the drivers on this busy prefectural road might not be able to fit inside the school, and so we waited in the nearby convenience store for a while.

The prefectural road was in front of the convenience store, so we could see the traffic jam right before our eyes. We started thinking about where else we could evacuate to.

Then the information on the radio changed, and they said a 10 meter tsunami was coming. A 10 meter tsunami means the only safe places are on the 3rd or 4th floor. So we decided it was too dangerous to stay where we were.

Four kilometers beyond Arahama is Shichigo Elementary. I remembered they were doing construction there a few years back. They said they were fortifying it against earthquakes. So in consideration of safety, we decided to evacuate to Shichigo Elementary instead.

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.

The tsunami attacks

I think it was around 20 minutes after we started putting up the tents when someone shouted, “Tsunami!!” When we looked towards the ocean, we saw electric poles snapping like sticks and clouds of dust rising.

At that time I was still thinking it couldn’t come here, because this was an evacuation center. So I was just kind of observing it. It was my first time seeing such a thing, so I was in awe you know?

But then things changed. At first I could only see smoke, but then the ocean surface appeared. Houses burning from the fires came flowing towards us, and then I knew in my gut that we were in danger too.

There were a lot of people and cars from the community in the parking lot too, so we couldn’t get out with the Nozomi cars. I tried to go back to my post at Nozomi, but then someone called my name and asked me to help an evacuee laying outside on a bed. When someone calls you by name, you think you have to help them first. There was no time to think about my work priorities with the tsunami coming, anyway. So I was trying to get the person on the bed to a safe place while watching the tsunami coming.

I was afraid, but I was trying to get this person to safety because I felt I had to help. Then I was also entrusted with an old man with poor eyesight. Since I had to help him along, I was slowed down no matter what I did, but I tried to evacuate with them to the mountain behind the parking lot. At the time, the tsunami had already started flowing into the parking lot.

It came that far in the 15 or so minutes after I noticed there was a tsunami. I ended up getting swallowed by the tsunami, but somehow it brought me to the mountain behind the lot. Then after around 10 minutes or so, the waves pulled away and we were saved.

Meeting with everyone from Nozomi

After helping rescue people around the mountain, I was worried about Nozomi, so I went back. I hoped there was no one left at Nozomi. It was a pile of wreckage, but I went inside and called out checking the rooms one by one. It seemed like no one was there.

Then as I was headed towards the entrance of Shizugawa High School on the mountain, I ran into Mr. Hatakeyama (a Nozomi employee) and asked about the situation.

He told me, “Everyone is soaking wet, but they’re safe in the high school biology lab. We did confirm that one trainee died at Nozomi, but we had to help ourselves and make sure our other trainees stayed alive, so we evacuated anyway. Yet, there is one more trainee still missing.”

It was also getting dark, so we agreed to just help everyone who was with us at the moment and went to the high school’s biology laboratory.

Nozomi’s employees and disabled trainees were there along with other people from the community. The room could fit around 30 people.

About the foundation’s other facilities

It wasn’t actually designated, but we had one evacuation center especially for disabled people. Social workers, disabled people, and their families who had lost their homes lived together in the mornings and evenings, and during the day they continued their activities as usual. The family members also went to their jobs and such from there.

Non-disabled people from the region also evacuated to our other facilities, and some of them stayed until August at the latest. Those facilities also asked Kesennuma City to support them as evacuation centers for the disabled, and got special public aid.

Those facilities shared their supplies with Nozomi, so we distributed them to our trainees living in shelters.


Evacuating to high ground

Did you establish someplace to evacuate?

Tada: We were sleeping in the place we use as a workshop now. The non-disabled people who took refuge with us were using the rooms and halls in the Seiyu-kan Building, so we were kind of separated.

Yasuko: There were 500 people here (in the Seiyu-kan Building) at the highest. A lot of people evacuated here. (Including non-disabled people.) (Mr. Tada and Yasuko were in different offices at the time of the disaster.)


Around how long did you take refuge here?

Tada: Until summer or so?

Ogawa: Yes.


Did people get sick or anything?

Kayoko: Rather than getting sick, I think it was more mentally difficult. As you can see, this is the only high ground we have here. So a lot of people came, right?

Ogawa: Yes.

Kayoko: You couldn’t open a door without seeing a bunch of strangers, so it was a really unstable environment.

Disabled people who came from shelters

It’s hard to lend a hand to weaker people when you’re evacuated and weak yourself.

Tada: At the time of the disaster, I was working at a disabled counseling center in front of Ishinomaki station. After it happened, I went to one of the houses I make rounds to for work. There was nothing left on the first floor (because of tsunami damage), yet there was a severely mentally and physically handicapped person living on the second floor.

Then when I talked with that person’s parents, they said that at first (when the disaster happened), they took refuge in a nearby school. But they had to leave that shelter that night, so they stayed in their car for a long time. Their child is severely handicapped, so at night the child had made noise (because of symptoms), and the other people there had said heartless things. But it got hard just staying in their car, so they went back to their house. Then, the first floor was destroyed, but they were somehow able to get to the second floor, so they went up there. Hearing this story made me realize that when people are in a difficult enough situation, rather than feeling sorry for someone with a disability, they’ll just be like, “Shut up, we can’t sleep.”

Kayoko: Yeah, that’s who you become.

Tada: What you don’t know is scary. That’s what it really means.

Yasuko: But I think it’s almost always like that.

Tada: That’s why so many disabled people and their families couldn’t go to shelters.

Kayoko: So you know, these disabled people are blamed by non-disabled people in an atmosphere where no one understands. They don’t feel comfortable staying in shelters, so they stay in their cars, or they have nowhere to go but their houses even though the houses could collapse at any time. That must be really hard.

Escaping from Tsunami

We knew Tsunami warning had been issued as someone turned the radio on.

Then emergency siren went off, and we all thought something serious was happening. Radio announcers were also mentioning the possibility of tsunami. We thought we would better leave the facility because we were located near the coast. There was not much hesitation in deciding to evacuate immediately.

Our evacuation center was Suginoiri elementary school two to three minutes away by car. My thought for these situations had been to bring people up in higher grounds, so the first step was to go diagonally across the street to the premise of a supermarket which was in a bit higher place than ours. There was an access from the shop’s rooftop parking to a road behind it, which was in a higher ground. We decided to bring everyone to the rooftop by shuttling them with our cars.

We asked the one who could walk to do so. We were to shuttle in a couple of rounds those who would need more time to walk there. We were going to abandon the cars if they were caught in heavy traffic, but it was going to be faster while the traffic was not bad. By using office cars and some private cars, we could bring everybody on the roof of the supermarket as our first step.

I was going to take the last car from our facility, and we were going to meet at the rooftop parking. The persons on foot were also going straight up to the parking, if I remember correctly. We were all there in less than half an hour and we needed to decide what to do next. Not all the members were in cars, and it was a very cold day. We thought we’d better seek shelter in a place with a roof and walls. And we knew our assigned evacuation center was the Suginoiri elementary school.

It was about three to four hundred meters to the school from the supermarket on flat road. The ones who were on foot continued to walk and we drove the ones who were in cars. We had no information whether the school would actually accept us or if there were already other people seeking shelter there. We just headed to the school without knowing these things.

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.

Number of trainees at the evacuation center

At one of Sakura Gakuen’s business partners, people got trapped in flood and couldn’t evacuate. Fortunately, they were all safe escaping to and stayed on the second floor of the company. They were rescued by the Self Defense Force and came to the evacuation center a few days after the earthquake. I was feeling very uneasy until we knew what was happening with them.

We couldn’t just go around. Some areas were even cordoned off by authorities. We could though send some of our trainees back to their family homes from the evacuation center. There were about 30 trainees, probably 40 including the ones from Moshiono Sato. The number went down slowly to about 20 on around the tenth day.

We operated group homes and their residents were with us too. Not all the facilities were damaged by the tsunami but they were cut off from lifeline, and we didn’t have enough staff members to task in different places. We thought it wasn’t a good idea to have our staff scattered in different places. We wouldn’t be able to deal with all the necessities in that situation with limited number of staff members in different places. All the staff was at the evacuation center. Some of them were taking care of the safety of the trainees, users and residents.

Three days taking refuge

The building Orion used as a tenant was close to the sea and it was engulfed by huge tsunami. The trainees and the staff escaped to upper floor of the building and were all safe.

How many trainees were there at that time?

Kumai: Around eight including a boy who was a graduate from special-need school, and a sixth grade elementary school girl and her mother who were visiting us at that time. We stayed in the building (where the facility was located) for a week. All the staff members were there, by chance.

(After the initial tremor) We put everyone in our cars and were ready to move to another place, when one trainee said she wanted to use bathroom. We decided to go back into the building of the facility. However, the owner of the building, who lived nearby, invited us to use the bathroom of his house. A couple of staff members and the trainee went to his house.

That was when the tsunami came. Those staff members and the trainee stayed at that house until Sunday (March 11 was a Friday).

The house was newly built but its first floor was ruined by the tsunami. Staff members took their shoes off to go into the house because it was before the tsunami, and the tsunami ruined their shoes.

Spending nights at roadside rest area

Ai’s house was damaged by the tsunami on the first floor.


Kumai: After the disaster, former director of the facility and I visited Ai’s house. I asked if she was able to sleep on the second floor of the house. I was worried she may not have been able to sleep there. She was scared of aftershocks, and they went to a roadside rest area called Johbon no Sato at night and slept in their sedan car, I was told.

I talked with Shoshin Kai (another social welfare foundation) and asked them to provide a room for Ai and her family in their facility, which was authorized as evacuation center for the disabled (in which persons with disabilities and their families took refuge). Luckily, they had one room available.


What did you talk about in the car with your parents?

Ai: About people affected by the disaster, and so on.

Kumai: You were also cleaning.

Ai: Yes!

Kumai: She went home during the day and helped clean the house.

Shoko needed medical support

Shoko first became worried when her phlegm aspirator’s battery died due to a loss of power, and she knew she might have difficulty breathing.

After the shaking stopped, did you return home?

Shoko: No, I moved to Minato Elementary School (near the Orion workshop). I stayed there for two nights, then some people from the Self-Defense Force took me to the Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital


Around how long were you in the hospital?

Shoko: I think it was around ten days.

Kumai: Shoko needed phlegm aspiration. When I told that to the managers of the Minato Elementary shelter, they said they would arrange to have her taken to the Red Cross Hospital. Then on Sunday (3/13), they moved her. We staff assumed they would take her straight to the hospital on the day they moved her, but we later heard she actually didn’t get there until two days later.

There was a nursing school right next to the elementary school, so apparently they had assistant nurses and nursing school students looking after her for the two days she stayed at the elementary school. After that, all those nurses gathered at the Red Cross Hospital, so the nursing-care helpers continued to assist her.

I was in the cake shop where I was employed.

Where were you at the time?

Konno: At the time of the earthquake, I was in the cake shop where I was employed. It shook really hard, so we evacuated to the parking lot outside. Then it started snowing.

I was there with my boss and the other employees.

It shook quite a lot inside the factory, so things fell down. The heavy oven moved a centimeter, and all kinds of utensils and the bowl we use to crack eggs fell and made a big mess.

After the shaking stopped, I got worried about my family and tried calling them, but I couldn’t get a hold of them.

To Jobon no Sato

What did you do after evacuating to the parking lot?

Konno: After the shaking stopped, I didn’t head home right away, but stayed with the people I work with. But I was worried, so at nighttime I tried to go home, but a ship had been flipped over on the road to my house and was spilling oil everywhere, so I was stuck. But I did walk to Jobon no Sato (a nearby rest stop).


So then from Jobon no Sato, you started walking towards your house again.

Konno: The reason I didn’t go home right away is because I was waiting to see if it would be possible to go home. I went to Jobon no Sato for the moment, but it was full of cars. There were already people sleeping there, so I couldn’t stay. The electricity was off and it was completely black, and I didn’t have any food.

Then night came and there was no way I could get home because it was dark, so I went back to the factory where I work and slept there. I thought it would be better to go home in the morning.


Where were you at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake?

I was at my home in Jusanhama, Kitakamicho, Ishinomaki. I was working from home as a massage therapist.


What were your thoughts when the earthquake happened?

I wasn’t really thinking, but I was amazed how big the quake was. I knew it was a little different than normal. There had been earthquakes before, but things like my Buddhist altar had never fallen from the shelves. But I heard things fall down. I thought it was going to be a lot of work to clean that up later. When I went outside, I noticed the house was groaning and creaking. Then I thought, “Wow, this is not good.” When things settled down, someone from the Ishinomaki Social Welfare Council (hereafter, “Council”) that had been assisting me came by car. They said, “You have to evacuate.” So I grabbed my windbreaker and my cane and evacuated by car to Kitakami Junior High School, which was on top of a hill.

The tsunami and evacuation

Were you aware at that time that a tsunami would come?

No, not at all. I was just startled by the shaking. I guess all I could think about was all the cleanup work there would be. Then someone at the evacuation center said, “Houses are being washed away.” And I thought, “What do they mean, washed away?” I had this strange feeling. At that time, the tsunami had already come, but I couldn’t see it. I just happened to evacuate quickly enough– I mean, the person from the Council came. I probably wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t come.


Was your house near the ocean?

It was in Jusanhama, which was some distance from the ocean. They had been saying on the radio for some time that there would definitely be an earthquake off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, so I was aware that an earthquake would probably happen. But the river in that area is around 600 meters wide, and the embankment is around 8 meters high. So I thought we would be fine even if a small tsunami came. Neither myself nor my parents had ever experienced a tsunami. But people living closer to the ocean had had such experiences. One person had built their house on a hill, and was using their first floor as storage while they lived on the second floor. They had a staircase with no handrails. When I asked them why, they said their home had once been damaged by a tsunami. They said their family members who had stayed at home were carried away. This was an elderly person, who just happened to be out at the time and was saved. They said they had no idea what was going on. It was the same way this time.


So even on the coast, different communities have different levels of awareness of tsunamis.

They do. My community didn’t really have much tsunami awareness. I think that’s why we lost so many.


Was your house washed away?

It wasn’t entirely washed away, but the whole first floor was washed away except for the pillars. I went back after all the rubble was cleaned up, and I was impressed that the pillars were still there. I guess they did float in the water, but the rubble stopped them from being carried off.

Living in the shelter

So then I was evacuated at Kitakami Junior High for three days, in the Council building for two days, and in my nephew’s house in the city for two weeks. The Council was located in the foothills of our neighborhood. The water came right up to it, but the building was fine.


Around how far was Kitakami Junior High from your house?

It was around 2-3 kilometers.


Was Kitakami Junior High a designated evacuation center?

I’m not sure if it was a designated evacuation center, but since we’d always been told there would be an earthquake off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture at some point, I think people did think of it as an evacuation center. It has a lot of space, it’s easy to get to by car, and it has a building.


Had you planned to evacuate to Kitakami Junior High if something happened?

I never planned it. I never even thought about a tsunami.


Was there food and drinks at Kitakami Junior High?

Someone from the nearby hot spring spa came with cooked food, things like bite-sized rice balls, sausages, and eggs. We were in no position to hope for anything fancy.


Were there any other people with disabilities besides yourself?

I think I was the only one there, but there may have been some who never identified themselves. The people there offered to help me a lot.


Did you have any problems at the shelter?

I can’t really say I had a problem, but… For example, we had to fill a bucket with water to flush the toilet, but I could do that by feel so it was honestly no trouble for me. But people still did it for me because they were trying to be considerate. That was nice of them, but I’m used to relying on my sense of touch, so if one thing gets moved around it throws everything off for me. That can make it difficult for me to go to the toilet.


So people went out of your way to help you, and you didn’t want to seem ungrateful?

Yes, that’s exactly it. When I’m on my own, I can find a way to flush the toilet or whatever. But I don’t think that’s really the issue. For some reason I held back and didn’t say anything about it.


Because you were being polite.

After that I moved into the Council building. They got cup ramen and all kinds of other provisions. I was really aware of the fact that I was the only visually impaired person from my community. The next day they started searching for missing people or whatever, and I was the only one who couldn’t help. Even if I’d paired up with someone, I would have been a burden. No one wants to spare the energy to deal with that. That was when I started to feel uncomfortable being there. My other nephew who lives in Yokohama came to visit later, and I decided to go to Yokohama with him. Although I didn’t want to impose. And so I stayed in Yokohama for around four months. I didn’t have my cane or anything, so I called the Miyagi Prefecture Visually Impaired Welfare Association, and they introduced me to the Association in Yokohama. I called and they came right away. At that time I also met someone from a vocational support center for the disabled, and they invited me to fold boxes with them and that sort of thing. I would work half the day, and in the afternoon I would go for walks with the volunteers. I got to walk to all kinds of places. I have to admit I was really fulfilled. It’s different with social workers, but at home I feel bad about asking people for help.


I guess that’s what happens when you stay somewhere a long time.

Yeah, this situation helped me realize that. Then an opportunity came along to move into an apartment in Sendai, so I moved. I stayed there for five years. Even after moving to Sendai, I got a lot of help from the Miyagi Prefecture Visually Impaired Welfare Association and various other people. In both Yokohama and Sendai, I had a full life and learned a lot.


Where were you and what were you doing the day of the disaster?

I was at my workplace in the Shishiori neighborhood. I was working at a company in the fisheries industry. They had around five factories total, but they were all destroyed, and now the company has downsized and integrated, so I’ve been laid off.


What sort of work did you do for the company?

I did shipping, packaging, assembly, and so on.


Around how many years did you work there?

I was there a long time. Eleven years.


Were you living in Kesennuma at the time?

I was living in prefectural housing in Shishiori, in the mountains.


When it started shaking around 14:46, did you get the feeling this was a bit unusual?

Yeah I did. It happened during work, so first everyone gathered in the courtyard outside the factory. The department supervisor took attendance and made sure everyone was there. There were around 100 of us. After that, we all followed the supervisor to evacuate.


Was the factory on low ground?

Yes. The cars in the parking lot in front of us were shaking and rolling on the waves. I felt kind of dizzy, and there was no way to hide under a table or anything like that, so I just stayed standing and thought, “This is not normal. It’s strange; the shaking is too strong.” At that time, I wasn’t aware a tsunami would come, and of course I couldn’t hear sirens or anything either. At first I was worried the second floor ceiling might fall down and crush us, but then I just wanted to get out of the room. A pipe had burst outside the window, and I could see water gushing out. I really had no idea what to do, but our supervisor said, “We can’t go outside now, so just take anything valuable and get ready,” and so we waited. After that, we evacuated. I was just worried that the building would come crashing down, and I was relieved to be able to escape. Once the shaking stopped, I wanted to go home, but around 15:00 my coworkers told me, “You can’t go back, it’s too dangerous. You should wait here.” I wondered why, because I still hadn’t imagined a tsunami coming. It was around 15:30 when I learned the reason. When I actually saw the tsunami before my eyes, I thought, “Oh, because a tsunami was coming. That’s why they told me to stay here,” and I understood. After that, I watched the tsunami rushing by with my coworkers. I saw a big ship being carried from the sea at alarming speed, and I watched it wondering how far it would go. A lot of other things came floating past too, like still intact houses and cars. I thought, “The factory and my car must be all gone.” Everyone’s legs started shaking, and we understood we couldn’t go home.


Was the place you and your supervisor and coworkers evacuated to on high ground?

Yes. The road was too narrow for cars to get through, so we all fled up there on foot.  It was around 5-10 minutes away from the factory.


Was the company doing tsunami evacuation drills at the time?

No, they weren’t.


So this place wasn’t a pre-determined evacuation area?

No, it was our first time going there. Our supervisor discussed it with the other managers, and they decided we would flee to that mountain. At that time they also prepared food and put it into backpacks.


What kind of food did you have?

It was canned food. The company makes canned goods, so that’s what we took.


Were there tsunami evacuation drills in the neighborhood you were living in?

No, there weren’t.


And so you didn’t know anything about evacuating, right?

I didn’t know anything, really. I hadn’t thought about it at all. I think my mindset has really changed from then to now, since the earthquake happened.


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.


How did you evacuate?

We scrambled into my brother’s car and fled.

Suddenly we noticed the road was already covered with around 30 centimeters of water, and we had to drive over scattered blocks and wreckage as we evacuated.

Traffic was jammed all the way to the coast and the elementary school our grandkids go to, and there were a lot of cars stopped in the junior high school yard, so we took another narrow road, left the car under the highway, and clambered up to the highway on foot to evacuate.

When we looked towards the ocean, we saw the enormous tsunami with ships, pine trees, huge numbers of cars, and adults and children all being carried away. It was really scary.

Pine trees were smashing into houses, and the power and speed was incredible. The water surface was rising alarmingly too, and then we sensed we were in danger where we were.

The car we’d left below was still okay, so we got into it again and fled onto a narrow road beneath the highway. We went inland towards Fukurobara, the Natori City Cultural Center, and Masuda Junior High School, but traffic was jammed wherever we went, and we couldn’t park because there were too many cars. My niece was living in the Medeshima Apartments near the mountains inland in Natori, so that was where we ended up evacuating to.


Around what time did you arrive there?

I think it was around 5:00. So it took a little over two hours.


That was fast. So you went to the Medeshima Apartments where your niece lived and escaped the danger.

Yes. Our son and his wife and our relatives had all evacuated to the Medeshima Apartments near the mountains, so we were happy to reunite with them there and see they were all okay. We stayed at our niece’s place for five days, and after that we stayed with my daughter-in-law’s family in Nishikatsuyama in Aoba, central Sendai, until we moved into temporary housing.


Did you have any problems at your daughter-in-law’s family’s house during that time? What did you do about food and such?

We didn’t have much food, and there was no gas or running water. We couldn’t cook anything, so we couldn’t eat like we wanted to. So we got handouts of rice balls, bread, water, and things like that at the hardware store.

The city also handed out food here and there, and we got some that way too.

The power was out, and tiles were falling from the roof of the house, so we covered it with tarp. It was an old house, so a lot of things were broken. We couldn’t bathe for a month, so our bodies were itchy. We couldn’t do laundry, and there were no clothes being handed out, so we had nothing but the clothes on our backs and it was really rough.


So you didn’t move to a shelter, support center, or community center in Nishikatsuyama, where your daughter-in-law’s family lived in Sendai?

We didn’t think of moving. We had more space in the house.

A tactful staff member

Were you at the Workshop Himawari (hereafter Himawari) on the day of the disaster?



Who led the evacuation?

Our staff did. Since there were some trainees in Fureai, and because people believed that here at Himawari it was definitely safe (it’s located 29 meters from sea level), staff members brought those people at Fureai to here by our service cars. Most of the staff members were young and they couldn’t imagine clearly how high or how life threatening a tsunami could be even after they heard about the tsunami warnings. Luckily, our chief secretary had experience working on fishing boat and he said that the area was prone to tsunami. With his advice, people decided to take hillside road to come back. The service cars would have been swept by the tsunami if they had taken seaside route, I suppose. It was the good mixture of ages in the staff that saved their lives, I believe. Thanks to that, all the staff and the trainees could safely come back to Himawari.


How was the tremor of the earthquake?

It was with a scale that I had never experienced before. Desks and photocopiers became fast moving weapons. They were not just moving but moving very fast. Trainees started to cry and shout. We instructed people to cover themselves under the tables but they couldn’t move at all. I hadn’t imagined that an earthquake could be that scary. Everything around you could become weapons. Lockers, photocopiers, tables all move so fast. Not just move, they run fast.


How many were you both trainees and staff at Himawari just after the earthquake hit?

We had 12 female trainees here, and male trainees were at Fureai. As for the staff members, the director and I were here at Himawari while other members were at Fureai.


What happened to lifeline services?

They all stopped just after the quake.


How did you manage to obtain information?

We turn the car engine on and listened to the radio. That gave us basic understanding on the damages caused to the area by the disaster. However, since we needed to save gasoline, we didn’t use the cars very often. We didn’t have a radio in our workshop so our access to information was limited.

The moment of the earthquake

Have you had your leg problem since you were small?

Yes, since I was small. It started when I was around one year old, and it was diagnosed when I was in the second grade of elementary school. The disease is called spinal muscular atrophy or SMA. It’s characterized by progressive muscle wasting, and it is categorized as an intractable disease by the government. I could walk until I was about 20 years old. However, I fell and got injured in one occasion, and so walking was considered too risky. I started using a wheelchair and that made me unable to stand up on my feet.


I see. Where were you, and what were you doing on March 11th?

I was in a daycare center. It was a place where persons with disabilities from Ishinomaki, Yamoto, and Higashi Matsushima came for their service. It took about five minutes by car from my house. The center was in Akai district of Higashi Matsushima city, and was located next to the Miyagi Toubu Cardiovascular Hospital.

Tsunami was about one meter high. As it was a daycare facility, its building was barrier-free and the floors were as low as the street level. The service usually finishes at around 15 o’clock, but on that day, people were playing table tennis volleyball. I couldn’t play on that day and was feeling relaxed. I was dozing away thinking I could go home soon. Then suddenly all the mobile phones started to buzz and the tremor came. There was a home for the elderly near the Ishinomaki Nishi High School, and we were to move there for safety. While staff was preparing cars, someone outside said that tsunami was coming. Director of the daycare center ran to the cardiovascular hospital to see if they would accept us there. We all moved to the hospital then, 30 or 40 of us. Even before we moved, the parking lot of the hospital was immersed in water by the tsunami. Streets were flooded by waves. Staff members took the user of the daycare center one by one to the hospital. The hospital building was built on slightly elevated ground and all the wheelchairs were brought there. People who could walk walked to the hospital.


Did people carried wheelchairs?

Yes. Three or four people carried a wheelchair above water level at a time with person on it.


How deep was the tsunami at that time?

It was just like the depth of staff members’ shoes. We could have moved with wheelchairs if there was not more water coming in, but the water was getting deeper.


Do you remember what the time was?

The tsunami came rather late in Ishinomaki area. Joh River along the Route 45 burst and the water came from there. It was just after 15 o’clock I guess.


Meanwhile the staff was discussing where to take refuge, right?

We didn’t have much time. There was not much information source neither.


Could you listen to radio then?

We didn’t have a radio, but at that time we could still use our mobile phones. I remember seeing some news such as the magnitude of the earthquake, that warnings for serious tsunami had been issued, and that seven meters high tsunami would hit the coast of Fukushima. Despite all the information, we didn’t know what was happening along the coast of Miyagi.


So were the basic means for information mobile phones?

Yes. It’s possible that some of the staff members were listening to car radios, but we were rather in a panic at that time. No one collapsed or anything. Usually, I use a belt to keep my body up when I go out. I would collapse even with a slight shaking movement. I did not have the belt as I was in a relaxed mode, and I could barely keep myself straight without it. Then later I was told that one of the staff was holding my body from the back. Now I know that that’s how I could manage without collapsing.


It was a huge tremor, wasn’t it?

It sure was huge. I would sure have collapsed if I had been by myself.


Did you think of tsunami when the earthquake hit?

Tsunami…. we had tsunami with the earthquake a few days earlier. I expected something small like that. Still, I didn’t think it will reach here. We can’t see the ocean from here, you know. On a map, it’s less than a kilometer from the coast line though. The tremor was extraordinary, and I thought something could happen but I was assuming that tsunami would definitely not reach here.


Did this area have tsunami before?

No. My mother was from very near to this place, but even that famous tsunami from the earthquake in Chile didn’t come here. I had heard that in Ishinomaki only places near to rivers such as Kitakami River could have tsunami. My image about tsunami was those fish baskets floating in the fish market.


It is difficult to have images of tsunami when you are inland.

You are right. I had no thoughts of tsunami. That daycare center over there is also by a river though.


You saw the water coming from that river. That means the tsunami had come through that river, I suppose.

We first took refuge on the first floor of the cardiovascular hospital. The waiting room we were staying had big glass windows, and we could see outside. We saw the Route 45 flooded and cars and trees floating and rushing with the water. We started saying that being on the first floor may be dangerous, and decided to move up to the second floor. However, there was no electricity and the elevator was not functioning. So, people who couldn’t walk were carried up one by one on stretchers. We had a room assigned, had blue plastic sheet spread in the room and slept together. They had a lot of blankets and the staff put them on us. There was no heater, but I didn’t feel cold, probably because the room was packed. Some people complained about the floor saying it was hard. I thought that’s not the important thing for us at that moment.


Was even a hospital without electricity?

Yes. They probably had backup generators or something for patients on mechanical ventilator, I guess.


Did you stay at the cardiovascular hospital for some days?

No, it was only one night. We were told that the hospital had to resume its operations from the following day because they expected quite a lot of persons to come for medical attentions. It was decided that we move out with the dawn of the day next morning. I heard that staff of the daycare center moved cars up from the facility to higher ground to save them from tsunami, for just in case. There were two cars left at the center, I heard, if I remember correctly. We used those cars to go to the home for the elderly, which we originally planned to take refuge. However, usual route was not passable. The cars had to drive dodging the debris. There were big logs everywhere, even on top of railways. Those logs were swept from nearby timber basin. There were ships washed up as well. A car was stuck into the wall of the daycare center.


How big was the tsunami?

From what I’ve heard, it was about one meter deep around the daycare center. People standing could have their upper body out of water, but the ones on wheelchairs would not have survived.


Could you tell us about the time at the home for the elderly?

We reached the home for the elderly, but I didn’t have any idea what happened to my house because mobile phones had been out of service from that morning. My younger brother usually takes train to his office in Kakuda, but on the day of the disaster he took his car since he would come home late because it was Friday. He left Kakuda just after the earthquake but got home the following morning. He stopped by at our house, took coats and medications, and brought them to the home for the elderly. He was stopped near the Ishinomaki Nishi High School in Yamoto district and was told he couldn’t drive any further. He left his car there and walked in water to get to the house.


Where was your mother on the day of the disaster?

She was on her way to pick me up at the daycare center, however, as she heard of approaching tsunami she headed back, telling people on the way about the tsunami, came back to the house and then took refuge at one of the houses in our community with more members of the area.