A Message to the Mission in Japan’s Disaster

Our host and her daughter visiting the remains of city hall, where she had worked, were overcome by grief. "I have driven by hundreds of times, but, this is the first time I put my feet here. I can feel the souls of my friends." This photo was taken two years after the tsunami destroyed her town.

I was welcomed to Otsuchi by Ken Sasaki, a man with an unforgettable smile. His small, 800-year-old Japanese town was practically destroyed by the earthquake, tsunami and fires of March 11, 2011.

In spite of the devastation of a year and a half ago, Ken was open and welcoming.

“Ken what do you need right now?” I asked.

He smiled and replied, “Rest, I’d like to sleep — a lot.” He paused. “Oh yes and beer.” Clearly Ken was a Mission kind of guy.

Since his English was nearly perfect I was certain I’d found the right place to start my journey. I asked the central question, “Ken, my hometown, San Francisco, sits on top of several earthquake faults. The Mission District, where I live, was built on sand dunes, streams and lakes. Our neighborhood is vulnerable to earthquakes. Our concern isn’t, if we are going to have an earthquake but when we are going to have the big one and what we should be thinking about in the meantime. So, Ken, thinking back over your experiences of the past year and three quarters, what recommendations would you give my neighbors in the Mission?”

I was amazed by his response.

Ken was speechless. His eyes watered and he said, “I can’t….I just don’t know. It’s too soon.” His reticence, not limited by wit, seems to have been stalled by the consideration that a catastrophe like Otsuchi’s could happen again to anyone anywhere. If Ken had trouble considering the topic of advice, I knew the rest of this wonderful little community would be silent. I had to find another way to hear Otsuchi’s message to the Mission.

I found our lessons were to be found in the stories told. Each person had a different experience.

As I relate Otsuchi’s stories I took the liberty to draw conclusions. I ask you to consider these accounts and their implications. Please, take the time to think, comment, and discuss your thoughts, online, with your friends and family. Otsuchi’s experience should give us insight.

Message to the Mission #1 — The Horror of Loss

“How many friends have you lost?” I asked.

“I cannot bring myself to count,” was the reply.

Otsuchi had a population of 15,277 before the earthquake and tsunami. The disaster took 1,276 dead or missing and 40 percent of Otsuchi’s families lost their homes.

“I have driven by these places every day for the past year and a half, but this is the first time I have put my feet on the ground. I can feel the souls of my friends. It’s very difficult,” said our host and friend.

The earth gave Otsuchi a 9+ shake.

Teachers, as they had been taught to do, ushered students to higher ground. Some children were released to their parents who had hurried to the school. The cars sped off down the road toward safety only to be met by a 20-foot wall of water that swept them back into a whirlpool that had formed in the school baseball diamond. The cars yawed in the vortex, soon to be drawn back out to their fate.

“Fortunately only teachers saw their expressionless faces,” I was told.

Crushed wooden buildings formed flotillas, which burst into flames. Otsuchi had no municipal gas supply, so each home and business had a propane tank. The gas bottles exploded, further fueling the fires. The wave pushed these burning mats into the forest that surrounded Otsuchi. So, destruction was extended into areas untouched by the wall of saltwater.

Homes, temples and small businesses were engulfed in and lost to the fire.

When I visited one of the more than 2,000 “temporary” homes provided to those who lost everything, I noticed a shrine for their pet rabbit. The bunny had been spared by the tsunami but succumbed to the stress of living in the cramped quarters of temporary housing. Grief, in one form or another, was everywhere.

The earthquake and tsunami was the earth acting to an unimaginable extreme. Everyone in the tiny town of Otsuchi did their best. Emergency procedures were well drafted, frequently practiced and followed with precision. The force of nature was overwhelming. Otsuchi, once filled with revered reminders of its antiquity, had been torn apart in a moment of fury and no one was to blame.

Message to the Mission #2 — Life’s Essentials Will Be Scarce

“There was no water,” I was told. “As a child, we had played in the woods and I remembered a spring in the hills. We found it and brought water down to our camp. There was no food. We found some sealed bags of rice floating in ponds of ocean water left by the wave. We made charcoal and cooked the rice to eat. All the local roads were either destroyed or impassable because of rubble. Emergency food and water finally reached us after three days. Fortunately, a new highway and overpass had just been completed or the delay would have been greater. Ten of us had to share a single toothbrush. Somehow we managed.”

Message to the Mission #3 — People Will Come

The sheer breadth of damage spread formal emergency help thin. The entire country and the world mobilized to provide aid to the Sendai region.

Wonderful organizations and individuals rushed to serve the region’s profound needs. Since Otsuchi and the nearby towns had been destroyed, simple things like finding immediate housing for the recovery crews and the survivors were a challenge. The fundraising efforts here in the Mission had provided donations to the Red Cross in Japan.

They purchased much-needed items not provided by the Japanese government or insurance. Our friend showed us a rice cooker the Red Cross had provided. “We always wanted to thank those who donated.  We didn’t know how,” she said. I can tell you these donations were useful but most of all heartwarming.  Our friend said, “Regular people like us care.”

Along with the help came scams, con artists and common thieves. The displaced residents were even subjected to groups of “aggressive non-standard religions” seeking to engage the vulnerable population.  Our lesson is that following a disaster many people will arrive. Most will be selfless and constructive while a few will not come to help. The community of Otsuchi and its fledgling government banded together to support and protect each other.

Message to the Mission #4 — Government Will No Longer Function

The Otsuchi governmental officials stayed in the disaster-control center, which was on the top floor of a solid concrete city hall. Unfortunately, the top floor was under the tidal flood level. So, almost all of the entire city government was lost. Otsuchi was left without any leadership or management systems. Many of the first responders rushed to successfully lower the Tsunami Gates only to be swept away by the tidal wave. All of the disaster plans assumed some form of local centralized command and control, but that was destroyed, leaving a grief-stricken population to hobble together leadership.

A local train conductor, after receiving an earthquake alert on his cell phone, stopped his train. He called central control and was advised to stay in place as the two-car “local” train was on high ground.

Then he was advised that due to evacuation “I was now on my own and the message ended with ‘take care of your passengers.’ I told the travelers that there were vending machines and toilets on board. Even after four hours I had no idea of what to say,” he said.  Such autonomy is nearly nonexistent in a country that takes great pride in order and procedure. It seems that the thought of the loss of leadership was so unimaginable that words of explanation could not be found. It took more than eight hours for firefighters to reach the train and guide its passengers to safety.

Even simple things like the keys to the emergency food storage warehouse and authorization for its use were lost. People wondered who should stay and participate in the rescue and who should go for help.  Survivors, eager to help, were frozen by the unimaginable. They assumed that a “first responder” would be there to help. That was not the case due to the magnitude of devastation.

I know now we must plan to be on our own for awhile.

Message to the Mission #5 — Economy Will Be Erased

Otsuchi’s economy was based on fishing, aquaculture, boat-building and repair. Following the tsunami, almost nothing remained. Of the town’s 200 companies that thrived before the disaster, only 20 remain.  The fishing industry that employed 400 is gone.

The Otsuchi economy generated 1,000,000,000 ¥ annually ($12 million USD). Now that economy has ground to a halt. Many companies have chosen to permanently relocate. Since the entire infrastructure, roads, power, water, sewage, etc. were lost rebuilding, businesses and their jobs are on hold.

Things as simple as housing for the recovery workers and volunteers are problematic. The closest hotel to Otsuchi was in Kamaishi, which was a 30-minute drive away. It was completely booked so we stayed at a friend’s new hillside home in Otsuchi. We didn’t want to be a burden so we moved to a hotel as soon as a room was available.

The earthquake dropped the elevation of Otsuchi by four feet. The ground seeps water every evening.  This area seems to be uninhabitable in its current configuration. That said, the foundations remain as do the people’s attachment to the old town. The path forward is clouded by the new natural realities, everyone’s love for the land and memories of the town that was once there. The Japanese government is eager to help but needs a central plan. The people are torn by the implications of any decision and subsequent plan. Our message is: We need a process to consider and plan for the unthinkable.

Message to the Mission #6 — Dwellings Will Disappear and Nature Will Change

Otsuchi’s displaced population was first housed in an auditorium, which thankfully was built on high ground. The cold days and lack of heat required all the giant theatrical curtains be cut to provide blankets.  Fortunately a Bay Area family has donated the money to replace the curtains sacrificed for warmth.  People remained in that facility for well over a year.

Some 2,100 temporary housing units were promptly provided by the Japanese government. The original design provided little privacy for the residents. These designs were quickly revised and improved. In spite of the crisp, efficient design, 200 square feet is very cramped for a family of four.

At night bedding was put down while tables and chairs were moved into the kitchen area. In the morning the process was reversed. As the reconstruction proceeds slowly these tiny spaces become longer-term dwellings. The land for the temporary communities was, in many cases, provided at no real cost by the farmers who owned the land. Now after two years of lost production, their benevolence is becoming an economic hardship.

The people I met were cheerful, grateful and to a person tired. They seemed to be focused on the daunting requirements of today, not much beyond. In spite of the immense challenges, everyone seemed to be optimistic.

I visited one of the small temporary dwellings and noticed a giant pillow embroidered with the saying in English, “Let me linger a little longer in dreams of strawberry fields,” another with “Happy Time” and almost unbelievably another exclaimed, “It’s a wonderful life.”

These little homes are filled with spirit but lacked the community that once existed. Residents had a tendency to stay in their spaces, hoping for a job and watching daytime TV dramas. Kids zoomed around on their bikes but were restricted to a small area by cautious parents. Each group of dwellings had a small public space with satellite Wi-Fi and an assortment of crafts materials and programs. As nice as it was it was a far cry from the bustling streets of their old town.

Our host led a group of 12 city employees, working in a very small prefab space. They managed the housing units and provided for the needs of displaced residents. These city employees, neatly dressed, were working long hours.

During my visit I was introduced to two guys wearing Grateful Dead t-shirts, longish hair and beards no two strands of which headed in the same direction. “These are our IT volunteers. They quit their jobs in Tokyo a year ago and have been here helping ever since.”

We asked what they were working on. The two wire-heads replied that everything had been lost and were quick to point out that the systems weren’t that great to begin with. “We have recovered most of the data and rewritten the file management systems for the city’s databases. There is still a lot of work to do.”

They smiled and looked at each other, nodding in agreement. Perfect, a couple of giving, capable, Japanese nerds working their tails off organizing Otsuchi’s zeros and ones with no anticipation of income. As I moved around the city and met its people I came to learn that the two IT guys were not the exception. Everyone was hard at work supporting each other and trying to recover the city they all loved. One teenage resident told a friend, “I love my town and I will do anything to help. I am just not sure what I can do.”

Even short-term recovery is a daunting task. Long-term restoration is just this side of unimaginable. The undertaking is one from which we must learn.

Our host summed the challenge with a simple but profound remark: “I haven’t had time to cry.”

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  1. Wow, if this was so hard for Japan imagine what it would be like here in our classist, racist, decentralized, non public, egotistical, maximize-profit landscape.

    At least all the new tall condo buildings could provide shelter during a tsunami. Would they let us in?!?

    And where will people charge their Teslas? Or get their 4$ toast?

    • two beers

      I wouldn’t say that Japan isn’t classist, but unlike the smug and selfish Little Lord Fauntleroys here, the upper classes in Japan have (or at least, used to have) a deeply-ingrained sense of noblesse oblige. They live well and are sociopaths in their own way, but unlike our redoubtable Randian Supermen, they feel a sense of responsibility to their workers and community.

      Here, our sense of obligation doesn’t extend far beyond our friends and family. Japan is better at dealing with crises because of the culture’s wider and deeper vertical and horizontal class obligations.

      • John

        TwoBeers, the US used to have a sense of noblesse oblige. You only have to look at the foundations and charities created by the industrialists of old. And the organizations like the Oddfellows whose main activity was helping those in a community who suffered hard times.

        The problem is that we lost all that when the government started creating the welfare nanny state and its entitlements and handouts. At that point, taxes went way up to pay for it all, and a lot of successful people said “screw it, I pay taxes for all this welfare so I don’t have to do any more”.

        Even so, you will know that Buffett, Gates and others of the super-rich give away most of their wealth to help others.

        Our main difference with Japan is that theirs a highly homogeneous culture and that helps cultivate empathy. Here in the US we prefer tribalism and hating on people who are different from us, whether that be poor blacks or rich whites.

  2. Mark Rabine Staff

    Great article George. Part of the thrill of living in SF is the fault and our disaster film future. Can’t be too prepared. Good to see the NERT stuff up there.

    • Thanks, Words cannot relate the strength of spirit nor the depth of sorrow I saw. These people are wonderful in the face of near total loss. The community was like a family.

  3. EDC

    Thank you George for your fantastic article.

    You have provided informative recommendations, by virtue of an undeniably heart wrenching tragedy, which we can all learn from.

    May all the residents of Otsuchi, find strength and solace in their rebirth.

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