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Ex-head of tsunami-hit Japan day care says 'thorough disaster drills' saved all lives

Evacuees are seen looking at the flooded city area from the rooftop of the Kesennuma Chuo Kominkan community hall in this photo provided by Naoko Utsumi.

SENDAI -- The now-defunct Ikkeijima nursery center on the coast of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, was completely destroyed by tsunami following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, but all 71 children and staff safely evacuated to a nearby community hall.

    Koharu Hayashi, 69, the head of the day care center at the time, reflected on the protocol children and staff followed leading up to their rescue, and stressed the importance of conducting thorough disaster drills.

    "It was during a period immediately before the new school year, and there was a feeling of excitement of moving to the next grade," Hayashi recalled moments before the quake hit 10 years ago on March 11. It was in the afternoon, and 71 of a total of 75 children on the school roll were inside the facility. Children aged 4 and under were taking a nap.

    Suddenly the ground started shaking violently, and though she intended to begin evacuating once the quake was over, it seemed to never end. With no time to waste, Hayashi quickly woke up the sleeping children, put jackets over their pajamas and gave evacuation orders to employees in a loud voice.

    As Ikkeijima center was located near the sea, it had already been decided that children and staff would evacuate to the three-story Kesennuma Chuo Kominkan community hall in the event of an earthquake.

    The community hall was only about 200 meters away, but babies aged under 1 and toddlers who could only take tottering steps were among those forced to flee. Staff members carried toddlers up to age 2 on their backs, or pushed them in strollers. After everyone was evacuated Hayashi looked outside from the third floor of the community hall and then saw white waves on the road. She yelled, "A tsunami is coming! Please look after the kids!"

    When the tsunami arrived at the community hall, the building shook due to the impact, and it flooded up to the ceiling of the second floor. People on the third floor moved to the rooftop. Fire broke out in surrounding areas, and the strong smell of oil and smoke spread, while everyone's hands, face, tears and mucus turned black.

    Even when they went inside at night and wrapped newspaper and cardboard boxes around their bodies, it wasn't enough to fend off the cold. "It felt like we were in hell," says Hayashi as she recalled that restless night.

    Early on the morning of March 12, the sound of a helicopter echoed near the rooftop, and a rescue team arrived. "We were waving to tell them we were here. I cried out of relief," Hayashi recalled. About 50 people including the elderly and pregnant women were the first to be rescued, but Hayashi felt hopeful as an emergency responder told her, "We promise to come back to save you, so please hang in there until then." Hayashi and the other staff and all of the children were rescued by the following day.

    The site of the now-defunct Ikkeijima nursery center and Mother's Home in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, is seen after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami hit the area in this photo taken on March 28, 2011, provided by Naoko Utsumi.

    The nursery building was completely destroyed in the tsunami, but Hayashi explained that everyone at the facility came out of the disaster alive thanks to "disaster drills conducted so thoroughly they almost seemed exaggerated."

    Before the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, a major tremblor off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture was anticipated, and during the time Hayashi was in charge of the day care center, they had disaster training about once a month. There were times when drills were carried out without advanced notice. The center also participated in a general evacuation drill that was held twice a year along with Mother's Home, a neighboring welfare center for children with disabilities, as well as the local fire department and employees at a nearby factory.

    The nursery center had informed parents and guardians beforehand that they would be at the community hall in case of a disaster. "When I think about what would have happened if the children were sent home, I'm glad that we had already decided (where to evacuate)," said Hayashi.

    At the community hall, Hayashi would blow a whistle hanging from her neck to warn people every time tsunami waves arrived following the first waves. Naoko Utsumi, 68, who participated in the general drills as the head of Mother's Home praised Hayashi's calm behavior at the community hall. "Hayashi was demonstrating leadership there," Utsumi explained.

    On that fateful day, a total of 446 people including those who worked around the area and residents evacuated to the community hall. Utsumi used her mobile phone to send emails to her family, including one that read, "It's a sea of fire. I might not make it, but I'll try." Her eldest son in London saw the email and called for help on Twitter. Then Tokyo Vice Gov. Naose Inoki saw the tweet and instructed the Tokyo Fire Department to send rescue workers. The fire department and Self-Defense Forces rescued all evacuees by March 13.

    Naoko Utsumi points to the direction where the Mother's Home welfare center was located before the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, on Dec. 24, 2020. (Mainichi/Issei Takizawa)

    One thing, however, didn't go as well as in the drills. Though food and medical supplies were stored at the community hall, they were placed on top of a locker on the first floor. The supplies were flooded, and they only had dry biscuits, water and some snacks to eat. Hayashi had to tell children that they "can only drink a (water bottle) cap's worth of water," and reflected that it may have been better to place the supplies somewhere higher.

    The day care facility was rebuilt as Makisawa Kibo nursery center in 2012. Hayashi stepped down as the head, and now spends her time passing on what she experienced at the time as a storyteller. "Some people laughed that our center was the only one continuing to do drills until in the evening, but that's what paid off," she told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    (Japanese original by Issei Takizawa, Sendai Bureau)

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