The Face of Disaster Attack in Ishinomaki and Onagawa, Japan

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Sendai   We left Sendai at 7PM to visit with families and worker cooperatives along the coast in the wake of the earthquake and the path of the tsunami in Ishinomaki and Onagawa, and now more than 12 hours later on the Shinkansen train from Sendai to Tokyo, I can really only make note of what I have seen, while it is fresh, raw, and painful, then try to sort it out later in hopes of finding sense in senselessness.  As we walked, the usual translation into English for me referred to the tsunami “attack” in the aftermath of the earthquake, and the more I looked from place to place, the more I agreed that this seemed a deliberate assault on people by an enraged and violent Nature.   This was Hurricane Katrina on meth with blood in her eyes.


paper mill at tsunami's edge

We drove past a huge paper mill in Ishinomaki billowing smoke from a half-dozen smokestacks, as we neared the coast, and then turned suddenly on acres and acres of what seemed at first like empty ground.  Slowing down and pulling over, I didn’t need to be able to read Japanese to know from New Orleans that the tall obelisk next to a ramshackle memorial of sorts would indicate the height of the water from the tsunami surge.  At the top it said 9.3 meters or about 30 feet of water that wiped this ground dirty with the debris of houses and people, some still being demolished now more than 18 months after the March 11th tragedy, which killed more than 3000 in this city of over 150,000.  Walking the abandoned streets, I could recognize the numbering system of houses gone and the occasional grace notes of families sending their own messages to the dead and those still alive.  With a crane in the background we looked at the memorial to some children lost in the wave.

high water mark

Standing in front of a school across the road, one of the co-op workers with us told of making it to high ground.  She, like the children, had about a 2-hour warning, but some were lost in the clog of cars desperately trying to evacuate the area and get to the high ground right above us.  Some were lost as they tried to go back and rescue family members and elderly parents.    This would probably be one of many areas where the government would not allow return.  Unlike New Orleans rather than moving everything to landfills, much of the debris was still present in mountains of stacked and broken cars and sloping hills of house debris producing wild sculptures of twisted metal, plaster, furniture and sheetrock.

Visiting with the editor of the local paper in the second floor of their offices, still waiting for repairs, we were able to see the handwritten editions he had produced within one day of the tsunami without electricity or machinery.  I asked why, and it all came down to being a part of the community and knowing that the community needed the news anyway he could offer it.

In town of Onagawa, situated partially along a pretty lake with recovering oyster beds and a pretty harbor where seafood processing had been everywhere, much as it had been in Ishinomaki, the tsunami attack cleaned out the valley below the ridges as if wielding a giant shovel.  Giant bulldozers were still clearing the beach.  Several huge modular housing hunks had been tossed in the air and turned over and were still twisted on the beach waiting to be dismantled.  This area would become a park and not be rebuilt.  This was the third tsunami attack, and 1000 people in businesses and houses, were killed, but nevermore.  We stood on the hospital parking lot on a ridge looking 100 feet down towards the beach, yet we could turn on our heels and see the water mark from the tsunami on the bottom of the second floor of the hospital.

A woman caretaking a shrine in Ishinomaki had honored us by letting us come in and see the footprint of the attacks on this 400-year old structure.  Water had come in at a dozen feet.  Porches and hallways added years ago were now sinking, as was much of the town from the effects of the earthquake and water.  The shrine had been built to manage earthquakes by generations past, but nothing was a match for the tsunami.  We passed a dozen packages of the bones of people who had died in the shrine.  The room had been full but these were the only remains now.   The grounds were beautiful reflecting the resilience of these women.

There were no trailers in Ishinomaki but the temporary housing for 100 in rows in the old playground was about as small.  People had been there for 18 months and supposedly only had another 18 months to go, but there were no hammers ringing out the sounds of new housing.  In Onagawa, we visited an even larger, 3-storey complex in a former ball field which was also “temporary” but no one knew where they would be allowed to go.  There was the typical confusion where the government had paid for the land, and provided new space on higher ground, but there was not enough money to afford rebuilding because the financial gap was still too large.

We saw a dozen people in the community space in Ishinomaki finding laughter in a small dog.  Children were playing the a huge tent in Onagawa having just returned from school around 4pm in the afternoon.  A dog in a small run build near the fence barked excitedly.  The school buses were huge and new, because the children were still afraid I was told.

The attack had been devastating and the signs of death were everywhere with life occasionally breaking the ground like a green shoot hoping for an early spring.

Japanese disaster numbering system
Lower 9th ward in Ishinomaki
temporary housing for 100 families on playground in Ishinomaki
ruins on the beach