Buildings completely or partially destroyed

Sakuranbo was completely destroyed. One day it was just gone. The Ouka nursing home suffered large scale partial destruction, but it might as well have been gone too. Even though the building itself remained, the electrical system was flooded and shot, and several cars had crashed into the building so it was completely useless. But this was considered large scale partial destruction. So an unusable building doesn’t equal a completely destroyed building.

At the time, the Ouka nursing home facility had just opened in July 2010, and after it was damaged on 3/11 2011, it was demolished in June 2012 to meet the demolition deadline. Two disabled group homes were also damaged and torn down.

Sakuranbo, a vocational support center for the disabled, wasn’t far from the Ouka nursing home facility, so everyone from those facilities evacuated together.

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.

Traces of the tsunami

We didn’t have any trainees whose homes were damaged by the tsunami, so no one went into temporary housing either.

On the other hand, our building was the only place that got hit, so all of our trainees really wanted Sakuranbo to recover quickly. They didn’t withdraw, but were really energetic and happy when we resumed our activities.

But the building and staff were facing great difficulties. Some of our staff’s homes were damaged in the tsunami, or their cars were swept away and had crashed into their houses. Sakuranbo’s foundation was carried off around 2-3 meters, and the underground electrical lines and water pipes were all ruptured and destroyed. We didn’t know what to do.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.


Where were you at 2:46 on the day of the earthquake?

I was alone watching TV in my private room on the second floor. Then it started shaking. The shaking was really severe, so I thought it was the end of me along with the building.


So you thought it was different from a normal earthquake?

I mean, it just started shaking like crazy all at once. I was in shock. Fortunately I moved right away, and walked five steps to reach the wall near the door of my room. I stayed there for a really long time.


How did you escape from the second floor to the first floor?

It was my house, so I knew the way by touch. I could see a little better than I can now, so I was able to get out to the yard from the second floor.


Were you aware a tsunami might come when the earthquake happened?

Yes. My region is the area where the Sanriku Earthquake tsunami and the Great Chilean Earthquake tsunami struck, so I’d had evacuation drills for both earthquakes and tsunamis since elementary school. There was also an earthquake two days before, right? I’d heard that earthquake had also caused an around 1 meter tsunami that almost flipped ships over, so I was sure. My instinct told me this tsunami would be at least 5 or 6 meters. But I never thought it would be a 15 or 16 meter tsunami that would wash my house away.


I’d like to ask you about the damages. Do you mean your entire building was swept away?

The house and the shed were both completely destroyed. Only the foundations were left.


Was your family okay?

My family members were all at work and experienced the disaster in their separate workplaces, but they were all okay. That was a relief. I thought they’d all been swept away. I couldn’t get reception on my phone after the disaster, and it was a few days to a week before I was able to meet them in person and confirm they were safe. A lot of the information coming into our region was tragic, and although an acquaintance who had walked back home from far away reported seeing some of my family members, I didn’t know their exact status. I couldn’t rest at ease until I saw them face to face. I’ll never forget how that felt.

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.