How Sendai Recovered from the 2011 Tsunami by George Gamayo

After the Tsunami: What We Can Learn from Sendai, Japan by George Gamayo. Written for SubSelfie.com

Four years ago, a catastrophic tsunami ravaged Sendai, Japan resulting to thousands of casualties. Before the tragedy, it was a lively fishery port with 7,000 residents. One of whom is Noriko Kikuchi who lived in Yuriage, Natori City, one of the worst hit areas. As we walked through the wrecked community, Noriko unveiled her stories.

The schools in Yuriage were once vibrant with life, with students calling it their second home. But after the quake, all that was left was an empty, damaged school filled with deafening silence. A huge clock greets visitors at the abandoned Yuriage Junior High School. The clock stopped exactly at the time the earthquake struck, 2:46pm. On that day, the school’s tsunami warning device failed to function, resulting to the death of 14 students.

Every March 11, at exactly 2:46PM, people pray for three minutes as they pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in the tsunami tragedy.
Every March 11, at exactly 2:46PM, people pray for three minutes as they pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in the tsunami tragedy.
Noriko, 35, is just one of the nearly 230,000 people displaced after the tsunami. For survivors like her, the 2011 earthquake was the longest six minutes of their life
Noriko, 35, is just one of the nearly 230,000 people displaced after the tsunami. For survivors like her, the 2011 earthquake was the longest six minutes of their life
Yuriage Junior High School
Yuriage Junior High School

We approached a hill called Hiroyama; two hundred people died in this area. This is a six-meter artificial land mass built in 1829. When the gigantic ocean waves rushed inland during the 2011 earthquake, residents climbed this hill, hoping it could save them. But the tsunami was 8.2 meters tall — high enough to swallow the highest ground in the town, and not a single person who climbed the hill survived.

The hill that was once a slice of paradise in the town of Yuriage stood witness to the two fateful days in Sendai’s history.
The hill that was once a slice of paradise in the town of Yuriage stood witness to the two fateful days in Sendai’s history.

There were around 500 casualties in Yuriage with 38 still missing. A few of them were tourists. As an effect of the tragedy, the city sunk to 87 centimeters, making it more vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surges. Since the tsunami, people have left Yuriage. The older ones have difficulties adapting to their temporary communities, forcing them to leave and go back to their old homes. Young people still suffer from trauma, no longer wanting to visit the place where they almost lost their lives.

The Stories of Sendai

I was in Sendai to attend and cover the third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. This city is the capital of the Miyagi Prefecture and the largest city in the Tohoku Region. It is also known as the City of Forest for the thick cover of trees and Academic Town for its universities that contribute to its high technology industry.

The city enjoys a temperate climate, compared to other cities in Japan. Its hottest month is in August while the coldest is in January when temperatures dip to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami disrupted the idyllic rhythm of the capital and changed their stories forever. It is one of the biggest calamities in the world in recent decades, perhaps rivaled only by super typhoon Yolanda.

To address disaster-related issues, the United Nations gathered 40,000 leaders and disaster experts from 186 countries to revise the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) that will take into effect from 2015 to 2025.

3rd United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan
3rd United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan

Through this forward planning on resiliency, the most vulnerable countries will be given due assistance as they strive to prevent economic loss and casualties during tragedies. The delegation of the Philippines successfully pushed the inclusion of women, youth, senior citizens, persons with disabilities, indigenous people and migrants in disaster initiatives. At the end of the conference, four priorities were agreed for the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction:

  1. Understanding disaster risks
  2. Strengthening governance to manage disaster risks
  3. Investing for resilience
  4. Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction
Panahon TV interviews DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman who is part of the Philippine delegation
Panahon TV interviews DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman who is part of the Philippine delegation

No Exceptions

With the third longest coast line in the world and enduring almost 20 cyclones per year, the Philippines is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. On November 2013, super typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, battered the country and claimed more than 6,000 lives. Thankfully there has been no stronger cyclone since but according to the weather bureau PAGASA, mightier typhoons with erratic tracks can happen in spite of the El Niño phenomenon this 2015.

But we have more to worry about. Experts are not dismissing the possibility of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in the Greater Metro Manila Area (GMMA) due to the movement of the Valley Fault System. Its last reported tectonic incident was in 1658 and no one can predict its next movement. Such scenario will put over 34,000 lives at risk.

Likewise, the Manila Trench can generate a magnitude 8.2 quake that can trigger tsunamis in Manila and nearby areas such as Western Bataan, Zambales, Occidental Mindoro, Cavite and Batangas. It may sound like an apocalypse and we may seem like alarmists; but it is a possibility that must not be ignored. A killer quake or a stronger cyclone may or may not come in this lifetime. But we must prepare as it can cause thousands of deaths and massive destruction.

Six months after Haiyan struck Tacloban, Leyte, the fisherman's village of Bgy. 88 still looked like this.
Six months after Haiyan struck Tacloban, Leyte, the fisherman’s village of Bgy. 88 still looked like this.

Roads to Recovery

“No one is immune to disasters; they happen in every corner of the world.” Mari Ramos of CNN shared this wisdom during the Global News Forum in Sendai. It is the utmost duty of media practitioners to disseminate accurate and simplified warnings with actionable information. On the other hand, citizens must participate to help improve community preparedness.

In Sendai, the tsunami may have destroyed homes, but its people never stopped rebuilding their lives and communities. The new Yuriage Elementary and Junior High School will be completed in 2018. It has been built away from the coast. There are new seawalls and more trees to protect the coastal areas against water-related hazards. Rehabilitation is also taking place in empty lands that may still be used as rice fields.

The government has moved away the people from their old homes that are now considered danger zones. Relocation sites can only exist in safe areas. There are also studies on how they can further assist the residents in terms of livelihood so they won’t come back to the marred communities anymore.

Relocation site in Natori City. Survivors were relocated based on their original neighborhoods.
Relocation site in Natori City. Survivors were relocated based on their original neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, Noriko now works as a tour guide in Natori City, sharing the aftermath of the disaster and the lessons they have learned from it. Her stories may be filled with pain, but they are also a reminder of the capacity of humanity for hope and resilience.

“Beware of Tsunami,” says these memorial stones put up after the March 1, 1933 tsunami that assaulted the same coast. These were once placed on top of Hiroyama but were swept down the hill after the Great East Japan Quake and Tsunami in 2011
“Beware of Tsunami,” says these memorial stones put up after the March 1, 1933 tsunami that assaulted the same coast. These were once placed on top of Hiroyama but were swept down the hill after the Great East Japan Quake and Tsunami in 2011

In memory of the 15,891 people who died in the Great East Japan Earthquake.

[Entry 75, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

George Vincent Gamayo is a segment producer for Panahon TV, the weather channel of the state-run People’s Television Network in the Philippines. The United Nations gave him accreditation to cover in Sendai, Japan for the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. He is also the writer of Project DINA (Disaster Information for Nationwide Awareness), a flagship project of the government in 2013 about disaster resiliency.

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