The Great East Japan Earthquake – What happened until we moved into temporary housing



Despite the fact that over 4 years have passed since the disaster, I have received more feedback to my last article, “The Great East Japan Earthquake – What happened at the evacuation shelter in the gymnasium”, than I could have imagined.


I got many comments like “it made me think” and “I will try to speak to my family”, many people addressed disaster prevention and reduction, and I was glad to realize that this issue has not faded into the background as much as I thought it had. I believe that familial education is the basis of disaster prevention. Being prepared, protecting oneself, evacuating, preventing a second disaster. Instead of teaching it at school in a short period of time, with this kind of knowledge we will be more successful if it is taught at home and repeated to our children and grandchildren until it is “imprinted”.


Even though we use this single term “disaster prevention”, different types of disasters call for different measures. There are some, like earthquakes, for which we are currently not scientifically capable of making detailed forecasts, and there are others, such as typhoons, rainstorms, and snowstorms, for which we can very well make predictable forecasts to some extent. Fleeing from a tsunami, volcano eruption, or rain storm is effective. Fleeing from a heavy rainstorm or snowstorm in the middle of the night is dangerous. There is not one valid solution for every kind of disaster.


I want people to get their hands on as much information as possible, just in case. There are lots of people like me, who are providing insights into the circumstances and measures of past disasters, as well as experts and specialists, so please try to search for and read materials about not only earthquakes but also other types of disasters.


Once again, I will tell you about the occurrences at the evacuation shelter inside the Yonesaki Elementary School gymnasium. Last time, I wrote mostly about the disaster itself and about our first evacuation shelter. This time, I want to elaborate on what kind of trouble we ran into after evacuating. Additionally, I will tell you about what happened until we moved from the evacuation shelter into temporary housing. I hope this will serve as a useful reference for the development of a future evacuation shelter operation manual and that it will trigger discussions about disaster prevention and reduction in every home.


However, this record is only one example of evacuation shelter management, not necessarily the best. Please remember that troubles may arise that didn’t occur in this particular evacuation shelter. Furthermore, I personally did not come up with everything referenced here. It is the result of consultations with those who took over the role of management officials for us, their feelings and thoughts.



How did we create a livable environment?


<Making beds with gym and straw mats>


Compared to the junior high school gymnasium, Yonesaki Elementary School’s gymnasium was slightly smaller in size. To help you imagine it: Although lines were drawn for two adjacent volleyball courts, standing in the serving position you could touch the wall with your hand. On March 12, over 300 people slept on the floor space available here.


Because Yonesaki Elementary School hadn’t originally been set up as an evacuation shelter, it had no supply storehouse. However, after seeking advice from the school’s deputy principal, who was sleeping here because his house had been washed away, we were able to borrow the school’s supplies. Additionally, we received permission to bring the judo and gym mats, potbelly stoves, and other useful items over from the junior high school to which we had evacuated on the first day.


We used gym mats and the straw mats, which were originally used by the senior society for local events, to cover the floor and, even though it was tight, nearly no one had to spend the night directly on the floor. Because the school’s fifth and sixth-year students play the drums, we had about 20 blankets intended for storing and transporting the instruments to use while sleeping and to keep us warm.


The elementary school also had kerosene stoves that could be used without electricity, as well as a stock of three to four 18-liter fuel containers. Unfortunately, inside the high-ceilinged gymnasium, all the heat rose to the top and it was impossible to properly warm the room. Nevertheless, we were able to warm our frozen fingers. By filling kettles and metal tubs with water and placing them on the stoves we kept the air from getting dry and were able to prepare hot water for cooking.


We had created a place for ourselves that would shelter us from both rain and wind, but of course, we had no electricity, no radio or cell phone signal, no information, and no home we could return to.






<From ‘shoes on’ to ‘shoes off’>


The Great East Japan Earthquake with its 9.0 magnitude and max seismic intensity of 7 (Japanese scale) is firmly etched into our memories.


But besides that, aftershocks with a seismic intensity of 5 and more also struck continually, one right after the other. What was especially frightening at the Yonesaki Elementary School evacuation shelter, was being inside during the aftershocks and experiencing how the gymnasium would shake. We were fighting the constant feeling of dread that the structure would collapse or the large windows in the ceiling would break and fall down onto our heads.


For this reason, we made sure that, even if the windows did break, we could always evacuate from all of the gymnasiums exits and lived with our shoes on.


However, sleeping and eating in a dusty, dirty space isn’t healthy. Making use of the knowledge of our nurses, we started sleeping in the masks that arrived with the relief supplies, to protect our throats from the dust and the cold. But to those who weren’t used to sleeping in a mask, this caused great distress. After two to three nights, most people were sleeping without a mask.


Thankfully, about a week after the disaster happened, the aftershocks lessened, and on the tenth day we declared a ‘shoes off’ policy inside the gymnasium. In addition, we rearranged the spaces for each household and created partitions area by area. This way we were keeping an eye on making sure everyone stayed as healthy as possible.






<Medical care>


For medical treatments and health monitoring, we received regular visits from teams sent by the Japanese Red Cross Society as well as the Iwate Medical Association.


But just after the disaster occurred, there was no radio or cell phone signal and no one was able to even call an ambulance. To deal with this (I don’t know the exact order of occurrences), a special road was cleared from the Ofunato highway down towards Ofunato Hospital exclusively for medical emergency vehicles, cars that disaster victims offered up for transporting people in need.


This way they were able to reach all of the evacuation shelters. Cars were registered with each shelter, a paper that read “emergency vehicle” was pasted onto the front, and we were allowed to use them whenever a person suddenly fell ill. Especially because numerous people were at the Yonesaki Elementary School evacuation shelter, who required dialysis, the opening of this emergency route was a big relief.



<The cooking area>


At first, we were preparing our meals in the kitchen of the nearby preschool. We did this because the walls of the school building that housed the elementary school’s kitchen had cracked, which caused safety concerns regarding the gas pipes. However, we received notice that the preschool was scheduled to reopen in April and that we needed to vacate it by April 10. Which meant that we weren’t able to use the kitchen anymore.


We thought that we might be able to use the elementary school’s kitchen if it were repaired, but of course, the school would reopen sooner or later as well. Besides, the kitchen was in the school building farthest away from the gymnasium and there was a great chance that we would make a mess transporting the food, so we decided to think of a different solution.


That’s when we decided to build our own kitchen with wood that had been washed up by the tsunami, canvas that had arrived with the relief supplies, and a soccer goal as a foundation structure. After carrying up a long sink typically used for various events, which had been stored behind an official’s home, our kitchen built from scratch was finished.


On April 11, although it was weak, I finally got a cell phone signal on my mobile. Right in that moment, I received a phone call from the president of the company I used to work for (in Yonezawa, Yamagata). He sent me a large pot, a gas cooker on which it would fit, several cutting boards, and knives. Thanks to his generosity we were able to cook food for our large number of people.



<Crime watch>


About half a month after the disaster, we weren’t able to get our hands on either gasoline, diesel fuel, or kerosene. Broken and washed up cars were toppled over all over the place, many of their gas tanks had been broken open and the fuel taken out. This is how desperate people were for fuel. Since this was a time of disaster, I don’t know if you could call this a crime. Fuel was also taken from the cars that were parked by the elementary school.


Here is another example.


During the fire brigade’s search and rescue activities drum cans became half visible in the debris. This was in the fishing district. Fuel on the fishing boats was usually stored in drum cans, so they had obviously been washed ashore. Inside them was diesel fuel and they even had their owner’s name written on them. We contacted the owner, received his permission to take them, and placed them close to the entrance to the evacuation shelter. Some of it, we gave to the builders and contractors, who were working on clearing the roads, some we filled into an evacuee’s diesel car.


But someone stole diesel fuel from these drum cans we had placed close to the evacuation shelter’s entrance. They took something in secret that we would have gladly given them if they had asked. It is a sad reality. I don’t know who the culprit was. What I find frightening is diesel fuel and gasoline being collected by amateurs. There’s also the danger of a fire breaking out.


After this happened, we began patrolling the area around the gymnasium every night, the parking lot, even all the way to the main school building. First, we thought we would decide who would be on duty with everyone in the shelter, but some officials worried that by determining duty roles this way, security information may be leaked. In the end, I and a few friends I asked to help me out went out on patrolling duty in a small group.


We did let the people in the evacuation shelter know that we would be patrolling every night, but didn’t tell them our schedule and carried out this activity at varying times. After this, no more fuel was stolen again, but we continued patrolling every night until the end of April.



The appointment of management officials


By order of one of my superiors in the fire brigade, I received the role of a management official. Immediately, I thought up ways to not have to take care of every single duty by myself.


Reception, greetings and thank-yous, management and distribution of supplies, evacuation shelter management decisions and announcements, preparing and giving out meals as well as washing the dishes, seeking ways to improve the living conditions, tending to sick people, fiscal matters – these and many more are the daily tasks that arise during life in an evacuation shelter. I knew that I needed help.


I needed to rely on other management officials, but it would be hard work and whoever I asked might refuse the position.


Luckily, there were many who had taken leadership positions during festivals. When you are involved in the management of festivals, you build relationships with the people from your community.


You even become acquaintances with people involved in neighboring festivals, learn their character, occupation, and what they are especially good at. I knew that even here I could count on the people, who had served as leaders at local festivals. The roles that need to be filled in an evacuation shelter are not so different from roles that are important at festivals.


When I approached the people I had chosen to be officials with the words “please become a management official,” they first thought about it for a second, but all agreed. Now there were 10 people working under our head of management and I was in charge of general affairs. Given the overall anxiety, it might be helpful to appoint officials as quickly as possible.


The people moving around the shelter weren’t only disaster victims and management officials. Experts and professionals like carpenters, nurses took over in fields where they could apply their skills, but there were many other tasks that needed to be tackled, such as organizing relief supplies, preparing meals and giving them out, washing up dirty dishes, and making improvements to our living conditions.


Because letting the volunteers carry around your own and your family’s belongings is not acceptable either, everyone was chipping in and doing the best they could to help us out.


Another issue is the waste that accumulates while we live our everyday lives. Every morning, before the wind would pick up, we burned that trash, dividing it up between 10 cremators. (Because we are a rural community, we were able to burn our waste outdoors.) Thankfully, the least amount of awareness everyone had was that of “there must be something I can do, too.”


Even though I got stuck on issues here and there every day, I always kept two things in mind while working as a management official.


The first was this: Delaying a decision until tomorrow doesn’t help, it will just add to my load of issues. Instead of searching for the best solution until tomorrow, go for the second best that is possible at this moment, move now. But don’t make the exhausted and fatigued evacuees work too hard.


The second was to remember that I alone don’t have the capacity to help each and every one of the disaster victims. The thought I kept in the back of my mind was that “I need to make sure my children are safe and sound,” and whenever I couldn’t make up my mind about a certain decision, my children’s faces would appear before my eyes, then I would decide what to do.

















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