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

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NAMIE, Fukushima – An elementary school in this northeastern Japanese city that was damaged by the tsunami of the great earthquake in eastern Japan was unveiled to the press on October 7 as the first relic of the disaster in Fukushima prefecture.

A teacher who helped save children from the tsunami at the time stressed the importance of preserving the old facilities of the Namie Ukedo Municipal Primary School, saying: “I hope this will be an opportunity for people. to reconsider disaster prevention in their own communities and workplaces.

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

The tsunami that hit the town of Namie is believed to have reached 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 students, teachers and staff evacuated and survived, 154 residents were killed in the Ukedo area.

What happened at school that day? Shinichi Sato, who wants to continue being a storyteller on weekends and holidays after the old school site opens to the public on October 24, told the Mainichi Shimbun about his memories of that day.

On the morning of March 11, 2011, Sato, the school’s academic affairs officer, accidentally watched a newspaper article about an earthquake in the teachers’ room at the primary school. He was having a conversation with the Deputy Director about the need for post-tsunami evacuation drills from the next academic year and the evacuation site being Mount Ohira.

At that time, the school had a tsunami escape plan, but the actual drills, which took place several times a year, were only for earthquakes, fires, and suspicious people. Although the school is located about 300 meters from the coast and at an altitude of only 3-4 meters, there have been no tsunami disaster drills.



Shinichi Sato, a teacher who helped evacuate students in the aftermath of the Great Eastern Japan earthquake in March 2011, as head of academic affairs at Ukedo Elementary School, is seen at the school Namie Sosei Elementary School in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture on October 6, 2021. In her hand is a photo of 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 the first graders left school and fifth semester classes had ended, a strong shake measuring the top 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale at 7 points hit the area. Students in grades two to six were immediately gathered in the staff parking lot. Just before 3 p.m., the director shouted, “A tsunami is coming. Let’s go to Mount Ohira.

The school was surrounded by plains with housing and farmland, but 1 kilometer inland was Mount Ohira, which towered over 40 meters.

The road 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, going from north to south. The road being several meters higher than the surroundings, the children had to wait at the end of the main crossing. Sato recalled: “I had imagined that the tsunami would not go beyond Hama Kaido.

However, Hama Kaido was crowded with cars trying to evacuate, making the crossing difficult as planned. When Sato ran to the school to report the situation, the principal told him, “Head towards Mount Ohira. There is no need to wait. An old local man also ran into the school, saying, “A tsunami is approaching.



This photo shows the gymnasium at Ukedo Primary School, hit by the earthquake and tsunami, which was unveiled to the press in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture on October 7, 2021 (Mainichi / Daisuke Wada)

At Hama Kaido, not everyone had finished crossing. Sato quickly led everyone to the other side and walked to the end of the line. The procession, which had initially been organized from upper to lower classes, reached nearly 100 meters, with the physically stronger children gradually taking the lead. Along the way, the road to the farm became bumpy and the head 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 struggled to find their way.

“We can go up the hill from here. I’ve been here for baseball practice before,” a fourth-year boy said, so they believed him and climbed. The principal and the deputy principal, who were still at the school, evacuated by car later, and everyone at the school made it out unharmed.

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

The evacuation was a series of quick decisions. There were parents who had come to pick up their children from Hama Kaido, but the sixth grade head teacher told the parents, “We cannot put them back here. Meet at Sunshine,” referring to a center for evacuation near the city. room.

What would have happened if the students had been handed over to their parents on site, or if the principal had not promptly ordered the evacuation to Mount Ohira? Sato reflected, “We were able to evacuate thanks to the conversation I had with the deputy director in the morning.”

Sato has been teaching at Namie Sosei Municipal Primary School for three years while guiding visitors to the damaged Ukedo Primary School site on his days off. He commented: “For disaster prevention education it is very important that people see the real thing first hand. I hope many people will visit the school (Ukedo) since this large part of the facility has been preserved.

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The day after the earthquake, evacuation orders were issued for the entire city due to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, delaying the search for missing persons around coastal areas. Although the evacuation order was lifted in spring 2017, with the exception of areas where it is difficult to return, the Ukedo area has been designated as a tsunami risk area and people cannot live there. , and the surrounding area is desolate.

The school closed in April this year without reopening, while the municipal government of Namie decided to preserve the buildings as a facility to convey the experience of the disaster.

In the administration building next to the school building, panels that present the Ukedo neighborhood, which was a fishing village, and the school before the earthquake, are shown. On the first floor of the school building, the ceiling where the tsunami passed through, a crooked window frame, a clock that stopped at 3:37 p.m. when the tsunami hit and other related items are kept. The story of the evacuation of children is also presented with illustrations. On the second floor, school flags, school songs and video interviews with residents are displayed, and the situation regarding the long-term evacuation due to the nuclear accident is explained.

(Japanese original from Shuji Ozaki, Local Minamisoma Office, and Rikka Teramachi, Fukushima Office)


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