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Quake Survivors Tell Compelling Tales

Daily Astorian

CANNON BEACH — As the tsunami approached Kesennuma City, Japan, people ran to one of the highest points in the area: Kesennuma Junior High School, 150 feet high.

By the time the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 subsided, more than 800 people had crowded into the school, built for 345 students.

There they stayed, for nearly six months, with 40 people to a classroom, sleeping on futons and crowding around kerosene stoves while it snowed outside.

Meanwhile, students attended classes, helped to shovel snow, and – when it finally arrived three days later – distributed food.

Hajime Saito, who recently retired as principal of the junior high school, told the story of how his school became an evacuation center in appearances in Portland and Cannon Beach this week as part of the Portland Earthquake Project.

The presentations were called “Voices From Tohoku,” a region in Northeast Japan, where the earthquake and tsunami occurred.

The trip for Saito and Rika Yamamoto, who is chief of emergency operations for Peace Winds Japan, a disaster response organization, was sponsored by Mercy Corps, Oregon Red Cross, U.S. Geological Society and the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management.

The two visitors spoke to members of the Cannon Beach Emergency Preparedness Committee and city staff members Wednesday afternoon and again to 40 other people during a public program Wednesday night.

Oregon and Japan both have coastal regions, mountains and similar geology, said Carol Skowron. But Japan has more earthquakes, she added.

“We have so much to learn from them,” Skowron said. “As part of the Portland Earthquake Project, we invited these guests to tell us what happened.”

When the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. March 11, 2011, it felt like three earthquakes, each lasting three minutes each, Saito said.

Because the school, built about 40 years ago, had been gradually brought up to seismic codes – the last upgrade was completed just a month prior to the earthquake — the only damage suffered was eight broken windows.

Other schools and buildings also survived the earthquake, Saito said, because of strong national seismic regulations. But when the tsunami struck 15 minutes later, much of the city collapsed, and fires, caused by leaking oil tanks along the coast broke out.

Waves reaching as high as 60 feet poured into the second floors of some buildings on the main street of Kesennuma City, a town of 60,000 people in the Tohoku region.

It took 24 hours before the tsunami waves subsided, but at their strongest they were able to move several large ships 300 meters inland. People who tried to flee in their cars were caught in traffic jams. Those who left their cars and ran survived, Saito said, but many of those who stayed were washed away.

Those who evacuated to the school were housed temporarily in the gymnasium and later in the classrooms.

Although the school had some supplies for 400 people, they weren’t enough, added Saito, who said he wished he had had more water, food, blankets, heaters and sanitary supplies. There were only 100 blankets to be shared by 800 people, and it was snowing outside.

“Students had to sleep without blankets, and it was very cold,” he said.

Finally, people wrapped themselves in the curtains they removed from the windows. Kerosene heaters eventually arrived and were placed in classrooms for people to get warm.

There was no water nor food at first, Saito said. A few days after the earthquake, firefighters from Tokyo, about 150 miles away, brought a tanker to the school and hooked a hose to a fire hydrant for drinking water. Water from the local swimming pool was used to flush the toilets in the school.

Three days later, city officials arrived with food – cold rice bowls. Long lines formed outside, but those in the lines were patient, Saito said.

“In our culture, we take care of others first,” he added.

Saito noted that the school was only a few blocks from the City Hall, but those in remote areas couldn’t get assistance for quite awhile until the U.S. Marines dropped supplies from helicopters.

The only communication available was through car radios, Saito said. Bulletin boards were set up to tell evacuees where other survivors were located.

Of the 345 students attending the school, 125 either lost their homes or their homes were damaged. Five students lost one parent; three students lost both parents; and one student, who left the school to find his mother, died.

It took teachers 11 days to confirm the safety of all the children who hadn’t been at the school when the earthquake occurred. They had to walk to the houses at the lower elevations, but where the roads were better in the higher elevations, they could drive.

However, because the distribution of gasoline was strictly controlled, only those that received stickers for their cars denoting that they were being used for rescue care could fill their tanks, Saito said.

Because the gymnasium couldn’t be heated and, even with tents, there was little privacy, Saito opened 19 classrooms for the evacuees. Each classroom held 40 people, and leaders from each classroom were appointed. They met several times a day to discuss who would be in charge of cleaning the school, who would clean the bathrooms and fetch water to flush the toilets and who would distribute food.

Two months later, temporary shelters occupied half of the school parking lot, and the rest of the space was filled with vehicles.

Because the earthquake occurred just a few days prior to the junior high school’s graduation ceremonies, the graduation was delayed. But Saito continued to conduct “voluntary” classes for the students to keep them occupied.

“The circumstances were hard and miserable, but students coming to school get energy and power,” Saito said.

In a country that has frequent disaster drills, Saito and others came away from the events on March 11 with some lessons learned.

The disaster and communication plans in the community must be improved, he said. Rules must be established that students won’t be handed over to relatives until the “all-clear” signal is given.

Evacuation routes before and after an earthquake must be determined and maintained, he added. Secondary routes also should be established, and drills for those routes should be conducted regularly.

Those attending the sessions said they learned a lot from the discussion.

“I took a lot of notes,” said Bill Brehm, chairman of the Cannon Beach Emergency Preparedness Committee. “It was very definitely valuable.”

State Rep. Debbie Boone, D-Cannon Beach, a member of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Committee, said she would take some of those lessons learned back to her legislative committee.

The committee is developing an earthquake and tsunami resilience plan for the coastal areas.

“These presentations – the information from them is going to be a huge part of our plan,” Boone said.

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.