Tsunami came late to unprepared Chiba

Coastal residents suffer on far southern edge of disaster zone

by Natsuko Fukue

ASAHI, Chiba Pref. — Shortly after the magnitude 9.0 quake hit the Tohoku region on March 11, Noriko Suzuki looked out of her house and saw tsunami coming.

“I felt my body shiver. I’ve never imagined tsunami would come to this area. I immediately ran toward a higher place, carrying my dog,” she said. “I had a car, but I didn’t even think about getting in it and starting the engine. I just ran.”

Asahi was 360 km from the temblor’s epicenter off Miyagi Prefecture.

But the unprecedented quake and tsunami impacted more than 10 prefectures and destroyed vast coastlines, Chiba being one of the southern-most hit. Overall the dead and missing number nearly 30,000, and more than 180,000 people lost their homes.

Although Chiba suffered less damage than the Tohoku region, its coast, dotted with ports and beaches, had not taken a hard tsunami hit in 308 years and was little prepared.

The biggest tsunami — the third generated by the quake — struck the area 2 1/2 hours later because of the distance it had to travel. The tsunami topped 2 meters, according to the Choshi Local Meteorological Observatory.

Asahi is still in recovery mode, having suffered 13 confirmed deaths and two missing. The waves damaged 2,265 buildings, including 427 that were destroyed, and left 716 people homeless. Shelters are still housing 322 people.

Utility poles boasted tsunami warnings posted long ago, but locals say they never took them seriously.

“We had been warned about tsunami, but there hadn’t been any. So we weren’t ready,” taxi driver Haruo Kato said.

Kato was driving a customer to a house near the sea after the quake and saw the river rising because of the tsunami.

“I heard a police car warning about tsunami, then I saw water close to where I was driving. I was so horrified I couldn’t step on the gas. My legs were shaking.”

After the tsunami receded, many evacuees went back to check on their homes and retrieve valuables.

Fusa Iwase, owner of a “soba” (buckwheat noodle) eatery, was among them. When she saw the tsunami coming, she could only run toward a bamboo grove behind her house, she said. She had left her car behind and was unable to relocate to a shelter.

“So I actually went back to my house on the first night by walking in seawater that was still about waist high, and slept on the second floor,” she said.

The tsunami destroyed her furniture and she now lives with a sister elsewhere in Chiba, she said.

Evacuees at shelters say they go back and check on their homes to prevent looting, which happens despite daily police patrols in the affected areas, they say.

“Every day, we hear about (thefts). Some pose as volunteers in order to steal valuables. It happens even at this shelter because we cannot forbid strangers from coming in,” said a woman staying at Iioka Elementary School.

The woman said most of the people at the shelters lost their homes and are seeking temporary housing or public housing built by the prefecture.

Asahi spokesman Yoshihiro Ishida said, “We’re doing our best to let evacuees move in as soon as possible.”

But residents say it will take time for life to return to any sense of normality, especially because of the damage to the fishing port and tourist beach houses.

About 70 vessels in Iioka’s fishing port, where fishermen mostly catch sardines, were damaged.

“I don’t know when we can start fishing again,” a 39-year-old fisherman, who withheld his name, said while fixing his boat. Fishermen are busy with repairs and pulling up cars and nets sunk in the harbor, which pose hazards to navigation.

Suzuki said fishing is the main income for her 72-year-old father. He nearly drowned when he was caught up in the tsunami in the port.

But Suzuki said he managed to grab a fishing net and took off his clothes to become lighter. His fellow fishermen pulled him back up on land, she said. “To him, his boats were more important than his life.”

Student volunteers are coming in and out to the city to help clean up debris.

Kensei Sakaehara, a first-year student whose parents live in Chiba, said he started working as a volunteer Friday and will continue until Thursday before the new semester begins.

“I used to come here often to surf, and people living here took care of me. This time, I want to pay them back,” he said.