The clock read 2:46 on March 11, 2011 when the quake shook Japan’s biggest island. It was the most severe jolting ever experienced on the islands of earthquake-prone Japan. Some registered the impact as over 9 on their scales.
The teachers and students of Okawa Elementary School 400 kms. north of Tokyo knew this was not like former earthquake And they knew to duck under their desks as they had been instructed to do first. They then had to evacuate the school buildings and head out to the expansive playground whose new shoots of grass had just begun appearing. What the occupants of the buildings did not then know was that the real danger was yet to come.
Less than 4 kms. away the Pacific Ocean seethed in turmoil as though angered by the quake’s insolence. A massive wave was gathering force for a pounding of the land. The river close to the school fled in a mad rush inland from its estuary. Students and teachers gathered closer as they listened intently to the playground’s speaker amplifying the announcement that a tsunami was preparing to strike the area.
Although the word “tsunami” is derived from the Japanese language and many “tidal” or “harbor” waves have repeatedly struck modern Japan, school personnel and officials of Okawa’s prefecture were not prepared for the 2011 disaster. The evacuation measures following a quake were familiar and unambiguous. What to do to escape a tsunami of such size and power was yet to be decided.
With no directive coming from the radio, the teachers began a frantic discussion. It was clear they were divided. Bordering the school grounds stood a hill rising in a steady incline over 1000 feet. Even the school’s smaller students had partially climbed it. They had planted and harvested mushrooms there and upper level students enjoyed running or ambling up the hill. When teachers rejected a climb as the best escape route, at least one sixth grader voiced his disagreement. The teachers feared multiple injuries among younger students sliding on the light snow covering the hill.
No one on the playground knew they had 51 minutes between the quake’s first jolts and the wave’s appearance. Or that it would rise above them 30 meters high one minute after the loudspeaker warning. When the river suddenly overflowed its banks and roared as its water surged inland, a handful of sixth graders fled the playground. Four of them along with one teacher survived when the river water began slamming the playground and school buildings. 34 students and 5 teachers perished. When the earthquake occurred, most of the student body had already gone home. The victims were preparing to board the last bus whose driver was also killed. There were over 200 fatalities in the houses near the school.
The tsunami terror left the newly organized Church World Service Japan with a valuable lesson. At a coastal elementary school in a Sendai suburb there were no fatalities. There, immediately following the shock of the quake, students and teachers followed the school stairs to the roof. They witnessed and heard around them the ghastly destruction. But there were no injuries. For Church World Service it was as though the disaster had scrawled a message to guide its future. Disaster Risk Reduction would be their emphasis in preparedness work across Asia.
A variety of measures for risk reduction have been introduced by CWSJ in multiple countries of Asia. Working through local partner non-profits Church World Service Japan implements Disaster Risk Reduction projects in Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and elsewhere. In most instances, the locale’s evacuation planning is first assessed. Some areas of DRR demanding specialization in expensive technology, such as radiation control measures, are addressed in international conferences CWSJ has helped organize.
That the twelve year old NGO has assumed a leadership in the DRR field is more evidence that government and other NGO’s have been slow to respond to the need. Although 14 countries in Asia experienced over 227,000 fatalities from the 2004 tsunami centered on Indonesia, Japan appears to be setting the standards across Asia in earthquake and tsunami preparedness. There are two major earthquake fault lines on the main island, with one running vertically through Tokyo.
ANOTHER SCHOOL’S STORY