We are trying as Be One staff to take off Mondays. This afternoon Eric and I took our two younger kids driving for several hours,in which they both slept and we documented in photos some of the areas that still very clearly show the remains of the havoc reaped by the tsunami over a year ago. I have found myself over the past month almost getting used to the torn-up neighborhoods that surround us. I don’t want to stop seeing these homes as what they really are — each a tragedy that has left many individuals without family members and/or homeless. One of our Ishinomaki friends reminded us yesterday that it is can be painful to hear volunteers celebrating how they have finished cleaning out a house and been able to throw away all the debris… she said, “That was our lives. That debris was all that my grandmother had in this life.” I need to keep remembering, or re-remembering.
And we hope, that as time passes here, we will be able to mark the progress in areas where precious homes that were wiped away are slowly being rebuilt; communities brought back to life. Here are some photos, and one story that is sadder than words.
That trash dump — there are just massive amounts of trash being sorted and piled. Different prefectures have made commitments to come to the worst-hit areas and take trash away to their prefectures to help ease the load. Be One is making many trash runs each week as they clean out homes, apartments, and yards that are still filled with unusable waste from the tsunami. We now are required to have permits from the city office for each trash run, which makes it all a bit more complicated.
Then- a very bizarre sight.
This is a 35-foot tall fish-oil tank that was swept over 1000 feet by the tsunami. Years ago it had been painted to resemble a can of whale meat, and had stood in front of the Kinoya seafood processing company. It is still where the tsunami dumped it a year ago — between two lanes of busy traffic. I hope that the city leaves it here as a memorial.
There are still many places around the area with piles of destroyed cars.
What struck me with this apartment building – it was at least two kilometers inland – but even the second floor was destroyed by the waves.
And then the blotches of land where the homes have all been razed – except for one here or there.
And a few more scenes from within a mile or two of our home:
If a 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami were not enough, there were fires caused by gas leaks that swept through communities. I met a mom in the supermarket the other day whose daughter is in Annie’s class. Their home was completely obliterated by a fire that followed the tsunami. This is a school that was destroyed by fire, as well.
And then we drove through the city and began driving along the river that runs its way between the ocean and the city. This was one of the first places where Eric and his colleagues had gone the week after the tsunami to look for pockets of communities in need of water and supplies. The photos at that time were horrific.
As we started out the drive, there was nothing to be seen of the tsunami damage from a year ago. Much had been cleaned up; it was quite a beautiful drive for awhile.
And then we came to the bridge, that led us over to the school. This is a small town called Okawa, about four kilometers inland from the sea. One third of the bridge had been washed away in the tsunami (apparently by a 3-ton fishing boat that struck it hard at that time) – you can see the repairs that have been made; and then in the following photo what is left of the bridge still remains in the riverbed.
We drove across the bridge, somewhat dreading what we were about to witness. This is what is left of Okawa Elementary School.
I have written in a previous blog about this school; most have heard at least parts of the tragedy that marked most of the students and teachers of this Ishinomaki school.
After the most frightening earthquake hit the small school, the 110 students and teachers made their way per protocol out onto the playground of the school, where they lined up. Parents were sent a message to come and get their children (every year we have had a practice pick-up time like this in the case of an actual emergency; the students stand in line by class, the teachers have a check-list, and the parents come, go up to the teacher, who checks off the name, and the child goes home with the parent). On this day, some parents did make it to pick up their children, but most did not. The tsunami warning came in, saying that a major tsunami was coming. It is unclear if the teachers thought that they were safe being so far inland, did not want to stray from their perspective of protocol, or didn’t think it was safe to climb the very steep hill behind them. (Apparently there were numerous pine trees that had fallen down, making the climbing really treacherous).
Most of the staff and children were told to stay in formation on the playground. They waited out on the freezing cold playground for 55 minutes.Some have said that the staff were arguing during that time about what the best thing to do. I’m sure none of them could have imagined…. And then the tsunami came. It first came from the river, and then shortly after that came across the river banks/fields. It covered almost the entire school, up to the roof, and flooded the whole area.
Only the 26 children whose parents came quickly to pick them up, and the eight children and one male teacher who had attempted to climb the hill were spared. One little boy shares that the tsunami completely buried him in mud. He kept calling out for help, and finally another fifth-grader also on the hill came to help him, despite having a broken arm himself. This boy has done numerous interviews with his father, but tragically his mother, grandfather, and little sister did not survive.
Seventy-five children and ten teachers died on the school grounds. According to several news reports, one of the male teachers who survived later committed suicide. As Eric and I were reflecting, he said that if this had happened in the U.S., that teacher would probably have done the speaking circuit. In Japan, he committed suicide. It is all too, too sad for words.
Today there are many memorials, flowers, altars in a central location in front of the school. During our short time there, a number of cars with other visitors came and prayed in front of the altar. (One humorous side note: Eric thought it was best that I not take pictures when I got out of the car, so I obliged, until I saw a group of priests with shaved heads in front of the altar praying and chatting while one of their group stood in the background taking pictures with his iPad2! I went back to the car and got my camera).
There was a very stunning granite statue of a mother and child, bundled up in wool clothing, that had been commissioned and placed there in October. It took the artist six months. At the bottom of the statue it is written, “Ko mamori” – protecting a child. I stood and stared at it for a long time, watching the wind beat the fish kites that waved around it.