JAPAN: Awareness, not walls, saved town from tsunami


TARO, Japan — This fishing village should have suffered massive casualties from the March 11 tsunami that tore through the town with waves 60 feet high — and twice that height in a narrow cove a short distance away.

A tsunami in 1896 killed all but 36 residents of Taro, and 911 died in 30-foot high waves in 1933.

But this time, Taro was perhaps the best-prepared town on the northeast coast, and it was among the fastest to build temporary shelters and organize a new life for survivors.

Famous in Japan for harvesting seaweed, urchin and abalone, Taroholds tsunami escape drills every March 3 on the anniversary of the 1933 disaster. This year the drill was only eight days before the real thing hit. Many people knew they had to flee to higher ground immediately and not wait for officials to tell them what to do. As a result, the official toll of 130 dead and 58 missing out of about 5,000 residents was far lower than in other towns farther south along the San-Riku coast. “We are experts at fleeing,” said Towa Oshita, 84, who also survived the 1933 tsunami. “I knew another one would come someday, and it did. It was bigger this time.”

Unlike towns farther south that prepared for earthquakes but not tsunamis, Taro has a high level of what locals call “tsunami consciousness.” In a cemetery on high ground away from the sea, stone tablets recall previous disasters, and massive seawalls speak of the dangers lurking on the other side. “There’s a thinking here that earthquakes equal tsunamis,” said Mrs. Oshita. “We knew for sure a tsunami would follow such a big quake, so we didn’t wait for warnings. We didn’t bring anything with us. We just ran immediately. That’s why we survived.”

With tsunamis in mind, the town built a fortified town hall in the 1990s with foundations as strong as pillars holding up trains and expressways. The March 11 tsunami, which swamped Otsuchi’s low-lying town hall and killed the mayor and 31 employees, only reached the parking lot ofTaro's town hall on higher ground. From the rubble of 1933, town planners laid out streets on a North American-style grid system, replacing the maze of labyrinths found elsewhere in ancient Japan. This allowed people easier escape routes to mountain paths. Mrs. Oshita pushed a shopping buggy for balance up smooth, linear streets. Her husband, Shinpei Oshita, 87, retraced his 1933 escape route, with the help of younger residents.

A lifelong fisherman, Mr. Oshita traces his lineage back to one of the 36 survivors in the 1896 disaster that killed 2,000 residents.

Still, Taro appears to be moving through recovery phases more rapidly than other communities on the devastated coast. Soldiers, using intact mountain roads, rapidly finished the search for missing persons. The nearby municipality of Miyako provided evacuees with a large recreation complex on a flat slice of mountaintop leveled by engineers years earlier, said Hirokazu Fujisawa, a Miyako city official who oversees the complex. About 400 evacuees have turned a “dodge ball” court in a gym into an indoor version of their town, with a neat grid of “streets,” and “homes” divided by cardboard partitions, some decorated with teddy bears, name tags and even drawings of “windows.” Immaculately clean and bright, the gym has an unusually cheerful atmosphere compared with other shelters. While seniors sit in chairs watching TV, teenagers work at tables of computers or choose from a wide selection of manga comics in a library of donated books.

Nearby, about 200 seniors and handicapped people enjoy private rooms at the Green Pia resort, with a medical clinic and a spectacular view of the wild ocean. Next to a warehouse, Taro residents are moving in district by district to 450 temporary housing units in order to maintain neighborhoods. The elderly Oshitas, who share a unit with their son, Tetsuo, 53, said it is “a big relief” after living two months in a shelter. An official at the town hall, Tetsuo Oshita lived in the shadow of a thick triangular wall two miles long and 30 feet high blocking his view of the sea. Trusting a double layer of tsunami walls — one close to sea, the other halfway to town — many residents over the past decade took out mortgages to build new houses, all of which were obliterated.

Once the pride of Taro, the walls kept out a tsunami from the 1960 quake off Chile, but were breached on March 11 or blown apart by the force of the Pacific Ocean attacking at jet speed. Residents said the barriers did at least give them time to escape. The walls also constantly reminded people about the perils of living by the ocean, while others fell into a false sense of security and died thinking they were safe in their fortresslike town. “We wish we would have built it higher,” said Tetsuo Oshita, who watched the tsunami crash in from a higher vantage point.

Now, driving through the wreckage of his neighborhood, Mr. Oshita said the town is still deciding whether to relocate farther inland, erect higher walls or rebuild the town atop mounds of rubble. “I know it’s dangerous, but I love this place. People have always resettled here after disasters, because it’s difficult for fishermen to live far away from the sea,” he said. “But I don’t think we can simply duplicate the community we had before.”

Tetsuo’s mother, Towa, said there was nothing left of Taro in 1933, but it came back. This time, she said, it is better to rebuild the town, largely made up of senior citizens, on higher ground. “We don’t need to build another wall, because the ocean will always be stronger. It’s simply too dangerous by the sea. Tsunamis will always come. My legs are weak, and I don’t want to run away again.”

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