Tohoku disaster a real-life drill for Tokyo police
By Christopher Johnson 9 May, 2011
Police in protective white suits look for missing persons in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, among piles of wreckage that could contain toxins which have caused a spike in pneumonia cases in the disaster zones.
Earthquakes and tsunamis are a geological fact-of-life in Japan, whether we want to admit it or not. But, if the Big One ever does hit the Kanto area as scientists expect, we can rest assured that the Tokyo authorities have been learning from their involvement with the rescue and relief efforts in the northeast since the March 11 disasters.
That’s because many Tokyo-based police officers have been rescuing people and searching for bodies in the zones affected by the tsunami and nuclear disasters in northeastern Japan.
“This is good practice for us,” says Yoshito Shinbori, the commander of a Tokyo-based unit searching for missing persons in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. “Someday a big quake and tsunami will hit Tokyo, and this will help us prepare for that reality.”
To help Iwate’s 2,000 exhausted officers, who are also coping with personal losses, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department dispatched more than 200 officers out of a metropolitan force of 45,000 — perhaps the largest in the world.
At the height of the nuclear radiation scare on March 17 and 18, Tokyo police also used a water cannon truck, normally meant to quell riots, to squirt water into steaming pools at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors.
On April 3, police began searching for bodies just outside the 20-kilometer no-go zone around the stricken power plant. On April 14, about 300 officers donned protective gear for much riskier work inside the 10-kilometer danger zone.
Conditions on the mission are dangerous, even weeks after the disaster.Those areas were still full of rubble untouched since the tsunami five weeks earlier, and radiation levels were higher as well, even on corpses, which police had to wash before taking them to morgues.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan thanked officers for risking their lives on the daunting missions. No injuries were immediately reported.
But the National Police Agency announced in late April that it will send psychotherapists from private institutions to assess the mental health of about 10,500 officers nationwide, some of whom might suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which often afflicts people in war zones.
Not by the numbers
Police in the field have treated each death as an individual, meaningful case. Instead of estimating a nationwide death toll, they are counting each identified corpse and missing-person report one by one. There were 14,517 dead and 11,432 missing as of April 27, according to the National Policy Agency’s website.
The actual death toll could be much higher. Cities and towns such as Yamata, Otsuchi, Rikuzen-Takata and Minami-Sanriku were completely wiped out, and whole families were washed out to sea, so nobody was left to register names as dead or missing.
Working among overturned vehicles, heavy cranes and buildings on the verge of collapse, Tokyo police take risks that are preparing them to deal with potential disasters in the Tokyo area.For survivors such as Yasuko Kawahata, the tsunami is a personal tragedy, regardless of whether a future census will set the death toll at 30,000 or 100,000.
She last saw her mother “Kin-chan,” 93, stuck in a car in front of their home and unable to escape the tsunami. Pushed up a stairwell, Mrs. Kawahata, 61, hung onto a beam and was later rescued by ladder.
A few days later, she filed an official missing-person report at the City Hall. With Iwate police over-worked, she waited for three weeks until Mr. Shinbori’s 20-strong crew arrived from Tokyo.
Searching for signs
Even with helmets, white masks, rubber gloves and boots, the police officers risk their lives poking through rancid debris of rotted tatami mats, splintered wood and chunks of plaster in buildings which could collapse and trap them at any moment.
With the help of a crane, they lifted and repositioned damaged cars, and unearthed photo albums and furniture, but found no sign of Kin-chan, whose name means “gold.”
“I can’t get on with my life until I find my mother,” sobbed Mrs. Kawahata. “I have been living with her my whole life. There were only two of us left in our family. Now I am the only one.”
The officers finally had to call off the search at sundown. Bowing deeply, they apologized profusely to Mrs. Kawahata, and then marched toward a bus for a two-hour ride in traffic to sleep on a cold floor in a municipal building in the mountains.
“Despite the hardships, this is what we are trained for,” says Officer Shinbori. “This is our duty, our life. We are here to help people.”
Learning from history
The aftermath of March 11, 2011 wasn’t the first drill for Tokyo police. They have been training for years for a disaster to hit the Tokyo area, which was devastated by an earthquake, tsunami and fire on September 1, 1923.
Five years ago, 20,000 officers had to walk up to 10 kilometers to work to simulate how they would operate if a quake knocked out transport systems.
The date of that drill, on a Saturday in 2006, was March 11.
Tokyo police have posted a colorful, easy-to-read set of earthquake and tsunami precautions in English and available to download from their website.