Jin Sato, mayor of Minamisanriku, Japan, was one of only 10 people to survive when the March 11, 2011, tsunami surge engulfed the three-story disaster prevention center where he was working. The tsunami destroyed 80 percent of the buildings in downtown and left 800 dead or missing. Four years later, the community is still struggling to recover in the aftermath of this natural disaster.
Mayor Sato sat down with Oregon Field Guide and U.S. experts on earthquakes and disaster response to discuss the lessons the community of Minamisanriku has learned as they’ve worked to recover from the disaster that upended their lives four years ago.
Here are highlights of that conversation, translated into English and edited for clarity and length.
Q&A with Mayor Jin Sato
Jay Wilson, chairman, Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Council: After your tsunami, you created a recovery plan. Can you tell me what’s been accomplished since then?
Mayor Jin Sato: In the past 120 years, we have experienced four large tsunamis. Each time, the town was destroyed and people died. The one we just experienced was the largest of the four, and it claimed large numbers of casualties, with more than 800 people dead or missing.
All the houses below 20 meters (about 65 feet) above sea level were destroyed. Roughly 80 percent of all the houses in the center of town were destroyed.
As we learn from this disaster, the core principal guiding our recovery plan is to rebuild a town where no human lives will be lost to a tsunami ever again. We will move to higher ground, where our citizens can sleep without worrying. We are building 28 housing complexes, with 20 to be completed by the end of 2014.
They are being built at altitudes roughly between 30 and 60 meters (about 100 to 200 feet).
Wilson: What are the challenges your town has faced during this recovery?
Sato: Private land ownership rules are a challenge.
I don’t know how it works in the U.S., but here, when your name is registered as the owner of a land, your designated heir is supposed to change the registration to his or her name to inherit the land when you pass away. In the past, when elderly people passed away, many heirs did not change the registration especially when it comes to a land in the countryside.
Now, there may be 70 or 80 heirs who are entitled to a 3,500-square-foot piece of land. We can’t purchase that land unless we obtain all of their signatures, and now they live all over Japan. It has required a lot of work to track them down.
Many people are not aware about this complex process, and they have complained a lot about how slow the recovery process has been.
Wilson: Have residents been able to move beyond what happened during the tsunami?
Sato: People have been living in temporary housing for three years, and that has been a hardship. On Aug. 2, we completed two public housing complexes with 84 units, and some people have been able to move in.
But a lot more people have not been able to move to new, permanent housing. Some are getting anxious, wondering when their turn will come. And as people do move into new public housing, they leave temporary housing units empty, which creates an issue of community. It is a new problem.
Wilson: Should the disaster prevention center be treated as a monument? Or should it be taken down?
Sato: This is a very delicate subject. 43 people died at the disaster prevention center. Ten people survived, including myself. It is a sad location. About half of the survivors whose loved ones died at the center want to take down the building, the other half have asked to preserve it. We were torn between conflicting demands with totally opposite opinions.
We have no funding to keep the building, and there are additional challenges with the land in the area with water and sinkholes. So we decided to dismantle it. It was an extremely difficult decision.
Do we need to leave the next generation with a visual reminder of the terror of the tsunami? When we considered our financial limits, we concluded that a small town like ours could not manage it.
We had a press conference in late September to announced the wrenching decision to dismantle the disaster prevention center, which had been recognize as a symbol of the disaster across Japan and worldwide.
Then, two weeks after we announced that we would dismantle the structure, the national government — which did not agree to fund it earlier — changed its position by 180 degrees, and said it would pay for the initial preservation cost.
Allison Pyrch, geotechnical engineer at Hart Crowser, member American Society of Civil Engineers: What advice would you give to the mayor of a town in Oregon who knows a tsunami will someday come, and whose town is not ready?
Sato: That's a very difficult question.
If an earthquake originates in the north, it generates southward waves, so the area in the south gets hit. But if the earthquake originates in the south, it generates northward waves. Then the north gets hit. You can’t just have one simulation for a tsunami. The places where the tsunami hits completely vary depending on where the epicenter of the earthquake is. We can’t predict it. We would have a broad idea, but would it be the right prediction?
We reviewed our disaster prevention plan, and determined that the ultimate measure we can take for a tsunami disaster is to evacuate to the high ground. That’s the only way. Evacuate to the high ground.
If you want me to come up with a message to Oregonians: Protect your life from a tsunami by doing whatever it takes.
Chris Goldfinger, Oregon State University, professor of marine geology: What do you think would most motivate people to be prepared? Is better education the answer, or better science?
Sato: I don't think I should pick one or the other. If we can find answers scientifically, we should do that for sure. However, the ultimate prevention plan for a tsunami disaster exists in the mind of every citizen. Science can help us predict, but unless each citizen becomes aware that a tsunami is scary and you have to escape to high ground to save your life, it won't get us anywhere if you don't evacuate.
When we’re talking about the terror of a tsunami, we may say a tsunami is 50 centimeters (20 inches). That sounds small, but you can’t stay standing. All the water from the floor of the ocean to its surface is moving. The pressure generates massive energy.
Natural disasters can happen anywhere in the world. We do not want to lose lives, not even one person. Since the disaster, I have constantly thought about how we can prevent loss of lives.
We set up an emergency response center in a school gymnasium. Next door, we used the auditorium space as a morgue. Dead bodies were carried into the morgue every day. I saw them and prayed for them every day. I never want to experience that again.
Translation provided by OPB Digital Producer Kayo Lackey