Miyagi prefecture, on the north east coast of mainland Honshu, scene of devastation when the great Tōhoku earthquake struck at 2.46pm on 11th March 2011.
It’s pretty hard to articulate really how you feel when you’re stood in a spot where 74 school children and 10 staff members were washed away by a huge tsunami wave just over 5 years ago. The tsunami swept though the area around 1 hour after the 9.0M megaquake struck and, despite the warning alarms sounding, the children were not evacuated to the surrounding hills. They went to an adjacent playing field. It doesn’t really bear thinking about what happened next.
Parts of the building still stand, mainly mangled, missing walls and ceilings. It’s the only structure left in what pictures showed to be a thriving little town. Check here for a before and after shot. Fields of green have replaced the houses, konbinis, restaurants that would have thrived in such recent times. The site is 4km inland from the sea. The local guide informed me that parents of the deceased we’re currently filing a lawsuit against the local government for not evacuating the area properly, despite the warning. The pain for local families will never go away.
Ogatsu was once a town that housed thousands of people: families, the young and the old, generations of people living a quiet, rural lifestyle away from the big city hustle. That afternoon on 3/11 has changed the area forever. Around 16,000 people have been declared dead, with thousands more still missing, and over a quarter of a million people displaced from their homes. Those who survived have generally moved away from the region. There is not much of anything left. Construction work is under way and the area is safe, but the beautiful coastline will never be repopulated to the level it once was. People are too scared to move back.
We visited a local community centre and did some community service, helping the locals tidy the area and planting some flowers. We helped to chop down trees to provide wood for fires to power shelters, and we helped to make clay bricks. The experience was fantastic and I think the locals were happy to have us there to help. They shared their stories from that day. They live sustainable lifestyles now, growing their own food, gathering wood from the forests to heat their homes. These little piglets weren’t going to market, but were on borrowed time.
On arrival to the region, we were taken to a different school site that was devastated by the giant wave. We walked up the hill to a tree marked with a red tape indicating the level of the water. It was 14m above the ground level – nearly 46ft. The wave in this area reached over 21m (nearly 70ft). The school is gone and has been replaced with a field of solar panels. Thankfully all-but-one of the children and staff were evacuated up the mountain before the tsunami devastated the area.
Moriumius is based nearby, high up in the hills. Read this article to get a flavour of what our week away consisted of. It was an invaluable few days away: eye-opening, jaw-dropping, emotional, harrowing at times, inspirational, but also fun. People give up considerable time to help here. For anyone who reads this, and is considering going to the region, drop Moriumius a line and get involved.