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.

Sharing experiences

Do you have any thoughts or things you want to share now?

Since that disaster, we’ve had opportunities to talk about our experience and how we prepared ourselves.

Of course, other welfare organizations located near the coast around Japan are worried that the same sort of disaster or tsunami might happen to them.

I have been invited to speak around the country for a few years now, but I sometimes wonder if my speeches are actually raising people’s disaster prevention awareness, and if people are actually putting what I say to use.

The Kumamoto earthquake was a big shock to me when it happened. I have passed on our earthquake experience and the things we did to prepare in the hope people might put it to use. However, I’ve seen how people have had the same experience in Kumamoto and various other places, so I feel like my efforts haven’t been useful.

Whenever I hear about a natural disaster, I feel really frustrated. I know this isn’t a small problem that can be solved by someone like me telling people about it, but that doesn’t change how I feel.

People’s memories fade too, and every day I think about how best to appeal to people around Japan to overcome the awareness problem, how to protect their lives in the event of a future disaster, and how to help them better understand the challenges social workers face in a disaster.

Ultimately, the only thing I can do is talk about it like this.

First, I hope that learning about our disaster experiences will be the first step for people to change their way of thinking and come to new realizations.

Social workers do face different challenges in a disaster than lay people do, so I want people in the social work field especially to understand this. Because both our trainees and our staff went through a really hard time in the disaster, and I don’t want our peers around the country to go through the same thing if a disaster happens to them.

After the disaster, a welfare organization located near the ocean in another prefecture once came to us saying they’d like all their employees to hear our workshop’s story. Later I heard that they started taking disaster prevention measures based on our experience.

I feel somehow relieved when I hear that a social welfare organization is now putting the things we told them to use to make preparations. It’s also really great when the organization doesn’t just copy the preparations and responses we adopted to protect our trainees, but discusses things amongst themselves to arrange their own strategy. It’s scary not knowing what might happen.

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.

I didn’t want to leave everyone.

Shoko’s friends at Orion were invaluable to her.


Ms. Kumai: When I said I wanted her to go to the hospital, Shoko didn’t want to go.

Shoko: Hehehe

Kumai: When Shoko said she didn’t want to go, I said no, you have to go.

Shoko: Hehehe


She doesn’t like the hospital?

Kumai: No, I don’t mean she doesn’t like it. She knew she would be separated from her other Orion friends if she went to the hospital, so she said, “I want to stay here with everyone.”

I think it’s the same now. If something like this happens again, I want to try to make sure we can all stay together. Because I was the one who told Shoko to go at that time, and I wished I didn’t have to do that. If something happens, everyone will feel safest if they can stay together. (Orion now has an in-house power generator in case of another disaster.)

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.


Have you made any preparations for earthquakes since the disaster?

I have an emergency backpack. It has things like water, instant rice, thermal sheets, and a poncho. There’s a manual radio and a lantern, too. Then a whistle and gloves. The whole works.


As someone with a disability, do you have any advice for abled people on emergency preparations?

Rather than collecting things, it’s more important to get connected with different places before a disaster happens. Then you’ll have a broader perspective. I think sharing information is important.


So it’s important to put out your own feelers and do whatever you can to collect information.

Yes, I think so. I think that’s where you have to start to get supplies and such.


When the disaster happened, did you get your information from the radio?

Yes. It’s easier to understand than TV. The problem with TV is that the onscreen text is useless to me. It’s helpful when they say every little thing out loud. In the Ishinomaki area, a cell phone is also convenient. If you register, you can get your cell phone to play announcements for drills, tell you what areas are being evacuated in a flood, and so on. You just register with the city.


And it plays audio?



Was that feature added after the disaster?

No, it was available before. How many years ago? It was quite a while ago. You just send a blank email from your cell phone to register. I received so many emails from the city, such as about disaster victim registration.


So if you register for services like that and stay connected with the people around you on a daily basis, you won’t have a problem when something happens.

That’s right. If you do that, you get information quickly. And that’s not only limited to disasters.

Living in temporary housing

Did you have any problems when you moved into temporary housing in May? Or were there any good things about moving?

At first I thought it was good that we had temporary housing, but the walls and rooms weren’t insulated, so it was hot in summer and cold in winter. That was the hardest thing. We also had trouble because we couldn’t communicate with our neighbors. When we lived in Yuriage, the hearing people around us had learned how to communicate with us, so we were able to communicate through writing and simple gestures, but this didn’t go very well in the temporary housing.

There were also no sign language interpreters available for the procedures we had to go through in various government offices, so it was really hard because we couldn’t understand how to fill out these detailed documents. But after around three months, volunteer interpreters from around the country came to the temporary housing complex, so we were really grateful for that.


What are you doing to prepare for disasters now that you’ve had this disaster experience?

If we had experienced tsunamis before in the past, I imagine we would have made some preparations. Now we feel safe because we live far from the ocean, but we have made emergency preparations anyway.

Changes in perceptions

Did you have measures set for earthquakes before the disaster?

We didn’t prepared anything special. Only materials we prepared for disasters were candles and flash lights. We added radio after the disaster. We can’t take out car radios, so we now have portable radios and batteries. We keep lists of contacts such as telephone numbers of our trainees in our service cars now. We also added chargers for mobile phone.


Did people experience changes in how they see things before and after the disaster?

I suppose family members of the trainees experienced changes. People witnessed incidents that took life so quickly. Parents seemed to have started thinking in detail what would happen to their children with disabilities if those kids lost their support. If the children have siblings, these can help them, but not all have siblings. Who will take care of the children then? That’s what parents started wondering. Some opened bank account with their children’s names. Some are trying to obtain special category status for their kids so that they can receive residential care services. Some of these parents send their kids for short stay programs to prepare them for residential care. People started thinking about practical matters on what they can do for the time they leave the children.


Final question. Is there anything you want persons without disabilities to know or things you want to tell them?

We produce bread and cookies at Himawari. These products are tools to facilitate people’s contacts, I believe. The trainees talk to people when they sell our products. With smiles on their faces, they take these products to clients’ residences or offices. People will see that persons with disabilities can also be so cheerful with smiles. I believe that it will be much easier for the trainees to ask for help to someone they have met before when they lost any other support like their family or workshop staff. We are trying to increase the contacts they have with local people. I’d really like to build a base for the trainees with disabilities to be able to keep living here in Kesennuma. Our tools to make this base are these sweet flavored cookies and bread with fresh aroma. These tasty food items help people to get to know each other. I am hoping that the trainees, not only make monetary reward by selling these, but also build their connections to local people for their future. We are now visiting with our products 17 offices such as local companies and local governments. It is more important that people get to know that our trainees are always cheerful and with smiles than they know what Down’s syndrome is or autism is. I am trying to get rid of discriminations against persons with disabilities through these projects. Cookies and bread serve as tools to let people know about the trainees, who are working hard, lighthearted, and with full of smiles. Our trainees can’t live by themselves, but with some supports they can live and shine with smiles. It’s hard to talk to people if you don’t know them. Knowing people makes communicating much easier.


Communication is very important I think. That leads to preparedness for disasters.

I believe that’s the most important thing as preparedness for disasters. Candles and electricity are important, but being able to ask for help and having a secure gathering space are the best ways to keep people safe at disasters.