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Fukushima Police Perspective: We must do what we're supposed to do (Pt. 7)

Women draw water from a swimming pool at Fukushima Daisan Elementary School in the city of Fukushima to flush lavatories on March 13, 2011.(Copyright (c) Fukushima-Minpo Co., Ltd.)

I was about to have a late lunch on March 11, 2011, when the reinforced concrete housing complex for police officers and their families in Fukushima Prefecture, where I lived at the time, started to shake violently left and right. Plates and dishes in a cupboard fell down and broke, and books fell onto the tatami mats. The temblor was so strong that I was unable to keep standing.

    I had never experienced such vibrations before. I was worried about my own safety and rushed out of my home.

    At the time, cold winds were blowing and thick clouds were spreading above in the sky, unlike the mild weather in the morning.

    I thought something extremely serious took place, and looked at the clock to find that my daughters were about to leave school for home.

    As a mother, I became worried about my daughters, and drove to their elementary school amid violent aftershocks.

    I became more anxious as I saw a concrete fence had fallen down along the road to the school, and the road had caved in at some places and had risen at other locations. But I told myself to keep calm and continued to drive to the school.

    On my way to the school, I saw some elementary school children on their way home and found my daughters among a group of elementary school children who were crouching down in the parking lot of a shop and unable to move because of fear.

    The asphalt in the parking lot developed cracks as aftershocks occurred and water was leaking from those cracks.

    On that day, children at the school were supposed to go home in groups accompanied by their teachers. The teachers had reportedly got information that tsunami would hit the area, and led the children back to the school situated in an upland area.

    I am grateful to the teachers who made the right judgment and protected all the children.

    I subsequently went to the elementary school to find its gymnasium packed with children, their parents and neighbors who had evacuated from their homes.

    Children whose guardians had not come to meet them were gathered toward the front of the gymnasium, elderly people who were receiving care services and sick people were staying in an area near the exit so that they could go out at any time and those who arrived at the school later were advised to come close to heaters to warm themselves. These arrangements to support evacuees were made in a short period of time.

    I worked with my daughters to write down young children's names and their parents' mobile phone numbers on adhesive tape and pasted it on the children's backs because I was afraid that they might panic if strong aftershocks or power blackouts occurred. We also wrote down "Difficult to walk" on adhesive tape and pasted it on the back of elderly people who had problems walking.

    My second daughter, who was a fourth-grader, was deeply worried about the situation. As she experienced frequent aftershocks and saw the reality in the gymnasium, she became concerned about her father whom she was unable to contact. She eventually became feverish and fell sick.

    I tried to reduce my daughter's mental stress by repeatedly telling her, "We're all right because we are with these people. Dad is strong, so he should be all right."

    On March 12, the day after the quake, I went to the police station where my husband worked to confirm his safety. The wives of my husband's co-workers were also at the station, apparently because they were worried about their husbands.

    I was unable to see my husband at the time, but I was relieved after being told that all the officers at the station and their families were safe.

    However, the police station was filled with tension because the scale of the earthquake was so huge and many residents died or went missing after being engulfed by the unexpected tsunami. Officers were responding to the disaster without drinking water because the water supply had been cut off.

    These hardworking officers reminded me of what a chief officer wrote in the prefectural police newsletter's section on "impressive phrases," that people must do what they are supposed to do now and leave nothing to later regret, and live to the fullest believing that their life could end in a single day. I thought it was the time for me to act in such a way.

    I asked myself what I could do then and consulted with the wives of officers at the station. We learned that water remained in a water tank in the police apartment building, so we all returned to the apartment, pumped water from the tank, brought rice, vegetables, rice cookers and other items to the police station, set up a makeshift kitchen on the third floor and prepared food for the officers who were working round the clock.

    On that day, I formed a cooking team with the wives of the officers, went to nearby supermarkets, stood in a line for hours and bought foodstuffs to provide to the officers.

    Shortly after coming back to the police station with the foodstuffs, I was shocked to hear the news that sent shockwaves throughout the nation -- an explosion had occurred at the No. 1 reactor building of Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.

    I could not stop shedding tears when I thought about the danger of radiation and became worried about the future development of the accident.

    I was reunited with my husband that night while bringing food to the officers with my daughters.

    I clearly remember the relieved expression my husband showed when he saw my daughters. Since he is a police officer, I was prepared for a situation in which I cannot contact my husband in case of an emergency. However, it was the first time for me to have been unable to contact my husband for such a long time and confirm the situation surrounding him.

    The following day, it turned out that radiation leaked from the nuclear plant, and the seriousness of the situation peaked. The area became nearly empty after local residents voluntarily evacuated, and the town ran out of foodstuffs and daily necessities. I was wondering whether to evacuate my daughters to a safer place.

    My eldest daughter, who was a sixth grader, learned from news reports that the nuclear fuel rods at the power plant were exposed and its cooling functions had stopped, and said, "A disaster will occur unless the rods are cooled down with water quickly."

    Children at my daughters' elementary school were learning about the environment and energy and measuring radiation levels in the pre-disaster period as the school was specially designated by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry and the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry as a model school for education about environmental issues.

    My daughter passionately talked about what she had learned about nuclear energy. Her information appeared reliable and I was surprised at her.

    Frequent aftershocks continued to rattle the area and tsunami warnings were issued, and we were becoming increasingly worried about the situation.

    One female officer entrusted her young daughter to me and asked me to evacuate with the child if something serious happened before tearfully returning to her duty.

    My husband also returned to work after telling us calmly, "I must stay here until the end of the crisis and do what I'm supposed to do. You should evacuate with the others." (By Akemi Yamabe, in her 40s, wife of Iwaki East Police Station officer Takashi Yamabe, December 2011)

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