Traffic jams worsened tsunami toll

Kyodo

Traffic jams that formed after the devastating March 11 mega-quake increased the death toll in the Tohoku region by stranding hundreds of cars that ended up being swallowed up by the tsunami, survivors said Sunday.

Although local governments had warned residents not to use cars to escape the tsunami after a similar scene unfolded in the massive 1993 quake at Okushiri Island in Hokkaido, many people still attempted to flee by car anyway.

Right after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck in March, a heavy traffic jam formed along Route 398 in the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, said city assembly member Yoshiaki Shoji.

Shoji, 60, who evacuated by bicycle to an elementary school near the national road, said he shouted “Escape! Escape!” to the vehicles in the logjam, but nobody responded, apparently because all their windows were closed and nobody heard him.

Shoji, who managed to survive by running up to the second floor of the school, said he found many toppled cars there.

“From now on, I would like people to think that it is common sense not to escape by car” when a tsunami hits, Shoji added.

Traffic also prevented escape in other cities, including Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture.

“Many residents were swept away by tsunami with their cars. We had urged them to head for higher ground to evacuate without using cars, but failed to keep everyone informed about it,” Shigeru Sugawara, mayor of Kesennuma in Miyagi, said.

Meanwhile, some people said they survived because they decided to abandon their cars.

Takeshi Nitta, 42, a company employee in Ishinomaki, said he tried to go to a hill by car at first after he saw the tsunami, but a traffic jam discouraged him from doing so.

He said he abandoned his car at a nearby temple and escaped death after scrambling up a cliff via rock-fall prevention nets.

“I thought a car would help me escape sooner, but I would have been dead if I had stayed in it. Just the thought of it makes me shiver,” Nitta said.

Fumihiko Imamura, a professor in the field of tsunami engineering at Tohoku University, agreed.

“In principle, we should use cars as little as possible when we evacuate from tsunami because (they) cause traffic jams,” he said.

“It’s desirable to routinely take note of where traffic gets tied up,” he added.