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Teacher recalls tsunami at Fukushima school unveiled as relic of March 2011 disaster

NAMIE, Fukushima -- An elementary school in this northeastern Japan town that was damaged by the tsunami of the Great East Japan Earthquake was unveiled to the press on Oct. 7 as Fukushima Prefecture's first relic of the disaster.

    A teacher who helped save children from the tsunami at the time underscored the significance of having Namie Municipal Ukedo Elementary School's former facilities preserved, saying, "I hope this will be an opportunity for people to reconsider disaster prevention in their own communities and workplaces."

    A clock damaged by the tsunami is seen on display at Ukedo Elementary School, a relic of the disaster, in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, on Oct. 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

    The tsunami that hit the town of Namie is believed to be over 15 meters high and the first floor of the school was almost completely swept away, leaving only the concrete pillars and walls. While all the students, teachers and employees evacuated and survived, 154 residents were killed in the Ukedo area.

    What happened at the school on that day? Shinichi Sato, who wants to continue to be a storyteller on weekends and holidays after the former school site opens to the public on Oct. 24, talked to the Mainichi Shimbun about his recollections of that day.

    On the morning of March 11, 2011, Sato, the head of academic affairs at the school, happened to be looking at a newspaper article about an earthquake in the staff room of the elementary school. He was having a conversation with the vice principal about the need for tsunami evacuation drills from the next academic year onward and the evacuation site being Mount Ohira.

    At that time, the school had an evacuation plan for tsunamis, but the actual drills, which were held several times a year, were only for earthquakes, fires, and suspicious persons. Although the school was located about 300 meters away from the coast and at an elevation of only 3-4 meters, there were no disaster drills for tsunamis.

    Shinichi Sato, a teacher who helped evacuate students following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake as head of academic affairs at Ukedo Elementary School, is seen at Namie Sosei Elementary School in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, on Oct. 6, 2021. In his hand is a photo of the Ukedo Elementary School taken by the Self-Defense Forces immediately after the earthquake and tsunami. (Mainichi/Shuji Ozaki)

    At 2:46 p.m. that day, just after first graders had left school and fifth-period classes had ended, a strong temblor measuring upper 6 on the 7-point Japanese seismic intensity scale hit the area. The students from second to sixth grade were immediately gathered in the staff parking lot. Just before 3 p.m., the principal called out, "A tsunami is coming. Let's go to Mount Ohira."

    The school was surrounded by plains hosting housing and farmland, but 1-kilometer inland stood Mount Ohira, which rose to a height of over 40 meters.

    The route to the hill was a straight line to the west along a farm road near the school, but it was necessary to cross a prefectural road called Hama Kaido, running north to south. Since the road was several meters higher than the surrounding area, the children were supposed to wait at the end of the crossing for the principal. Sato recalled, "I had imagined that the tsunami would not go beyond Hama Kaido."

    However, Hama Kaido was jammed with cars trying to evacuate, making it difficult to cross as planned. When Sato ran back to the school to report the situation, the principal instructed him, "Head for Mount Ohira. There is no need to wait." An elderly local man also came running into the school, saying, "A tsunami is coming."

    This photo shows the gymnasium of the earthquake and tsunami-hit Ukedo Elementary School, which was unveiled to the press, in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, on Oct. 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

    At Hama Kaido, not everyone had finished crossing. Sato hurriedly got everyone over to the other side and walked at the end of the line. The procession, which had initially been in order from the upper grades to the lower grades, grew to nearly 100 meters, with the physically stronger children gradually taking the lead. On the way, the farm road became bumpy and homeroom teachers carried the children in wheelchairs on their backs.

    It was about 3:15 p.m. when they reached the base of the hill. The teachers who led the way had never climbed the hill before and were having trouble finding their way up.

    "We can go up the hill from here. I've been here before for baseball practice," said a fourth-grade boy, so they believed him and climbed up. The principal and vice principal, who were still at the school, evacuated in a car later, and everyone from the school made it out safely.

    The tsunami hit the school at around 3:37 p.m. The muddy water reached the foot of the hill a few minutes later. When Sato returned to the entrance of the hill to check on the situation, he saw what looked like a lake stretching out to the horizon. Roofs and cars were floating in places, and many houses had sunk beneath the tsunami waters. In the evening, the students were able to descend down the other side of the hill and reach a gymnasium inland.

    The evacuation was a series of quick decisions. There were parents who had come to pick up their children on Hama Kaido, but the sixth-grade homeroom teacher told parents, "We can't hand them over here. Let's meet up at Sunshine," referring to an evacuation center near the town hall.

    What would have happened if the students had been handed over to their parents on the spot, or if the principal had not promptly ordered the evacuation to Mount Ohira? Sato reflected, "We managed to evacuate thanks to the conversation I had with the vice principal in the morning."

    Sato has been teaching at the municipal Namie Sosei Elementary School for the past three years while guiding visitors to the damaged Ukedo Elementary School site on his days off. He commented, "For disaster prevention education, it is most important for people to see the real thing firsthand. I hope many people will visit (Ukedo) school since this much of the facility has been preserved."

    ***

    The day after the earthquake, evacuation orders were issued for the entire town due to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, delaying the search for missing people around the coastal areas. Although the evacuation order was lifted in the spring of 2017 except for areas where it's difficult to return, the Ukedo area has been designated as a tsunami disaster risk area and people cannot live there, and the surrounding area is desolate.

    The school closed in April this year without being reopened, while the Namie Municipal Government decided to preserve the buildings as a facility to hand down the experience of the disaster.

    In the administration building next to the school building, panels that introduce the Ukedo district, which was a fisherman's village, and the school before the earthquake, are shown. On the first floor of the school building, the ceiling where the tsunami broke through, a twisted window frame, a clock that stopped at 3:37 p.m. when the tsunami struck, and other related items are preserved. The story of how the children evacuated is also introduced with illustrations. On the second floor, school flags, school songs, and video interviews of residents are displayed, and the situation concerning the long-term evacuation due to the nuclear accident is explained.

    (Japanese original by Shuji Ozaki, Minamisoma Local Bureau, and Rikka Teramachi, Fukushima Bureau)

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