Island hit by 1993 killer tsunami remains vigilant

by and


The Meteorological Agency has introduced a tsunami rapid warning system to help Okushiri islanders evacuate their homes before tidal waves strike.

Okushiri, a 143-sq.-km island in the Sea of Japan off the Oshima Peninsula in Hokkaido, was hit by an earthquake and tsunami in July 1993 that left 198 residents dead.

The rapid warning system introduced last month is the latest addition to countermeasures put in place since the catastrophe devastated the Aonae district at the island’s southern tip, where fire razed 189 houses and inns.

The system utilizes the Meteorological Agency’s “earthquake emergency report” and is designed to issue a tsunami warning two minutes after an earthquake. The agency’s objective in the past was to issue a warning within three minutes.

Officials said the difference of a minute can be the difference between life and death for people fleeing to safety.

A total of 93 billion yen has been spent to protect Okushiri from tsunami since 1993. Numerous foreign reporters visited the island following the December 2004 earthquake off Sumatra that brought home to people in the rest of the world the danger of tsunami.

Philippe Pons of the French newspaper Le Monde called Okushiri the “island fighting tsunami” and gave it high marks for its advanced alert system.

Okushiri, which boasts a flourishing fisheries industry focusing on products such as sea urchin, is considered a “fortress island.” Fourteen km of its 84-km shoreline is guarded by seawalls 5.4 meters to 11.7 meters in height.

Also, four rivers each have four floodgates to block tsunami from going upstream.

When an earthquake registering an intensity of more than 4 on the Japanese scale to 7 is observed, the gates close automatically and a minute-long broadcast is made on the disaster prevention radio system, urging islanders to evacuate.

Every household on the island, numbering about 1,700, is equipped with a radio receiver.

A raised evacuation platform measuring 32 meters by 164 meters has been constructed at the Aonae fishing port. It is about 6.6 meters high and can hold about 440 evacuees.

There are about 40 evacuation routes leading to hills with signs showing the elevation, including one at 23.3 meters, the exact height of the 1993 tsunami.

Not all towns can afford such a costly project.

Given the scale of the 1993 disaster, construction of Okushiri’s tsunami facilities have been given priority and full funding by the central and prefectural governments.

But most other municipalities nationwide, many of them struggling under mountains of debt, have no choice but to leave disaster-preparedness up to their residents.

In Owase, Mie Prefecture, a sign at the gate of a temple on a hill in the Kata neighborhood says, “Crows in the forest fled and a large group of black kites gathered.”

This snippet from a folktale is a reminder of omens of earthquakes. A group of residents set up the sign about 20 years ago so people don’t let memories of killer quakes and tsunami fade away.

Scientists consider the city due for a major temblor and tsunami in 100-year cycles. A quake in July 1944 killed 65 people.

Ken Mikuni, 70, remembers hearing a rumbling and feeling the ground shake while playing outside with his friends shortly after noon. He ran up the hill to safety.

“A darkish wave swept toward the bay,” he said. “The tsunami advanced past the embankment and collapsed houses as if it were breaking down toy building blocks with a cloud of dust. The whole town seemed to become part of the sea.”

His 6-year-old sister clung to their mother at home but was swept away. Her body was found in the sea a week later.

Six years ago he edited the diaries of eight people who experienced the disaster for a booklet that he delivered to the city office. “I don’t want my grandchildren and other children to go through (such) a tragedy,” he said. “You never know when a tsunami will come. We shouldn’t forget it.”

“I’d like to tell (others) about tsunami as long as I live,” said fisherman Kiyoji Hayashi, 57, remembering the 1993 Okushiri earthquake and tsunami. He tells his story to tourists at the inn his family operates.

He said people “should talk with their family members at least once a year to decide their evacuation route.”