OTSUCHI, IWATE PREF. – When the March 11 quake struck, mayoral candidate Yutaka Ikarigawa was preparing for a speech on the streets of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture.
The quake jolted the town for three minutes — a seeming eternity.
Believing that a large tsunami could engulf the town within 10 to 15 minutes, the 60-year-old Ikarigawa urged people to immediately evacuate to higher ground — even carrying some to safety on his back.
Ikarigawa, who recently was elected mayor of Otsuchi, had known what to expect.
Prior to the March 11 calamities, Ikarigawa — a man branded by some as “a boy who cried wolf” — had warned of potential calamities for years while working as a town disaster prevention official.
In this role, Ikarigawa said he believed there was a 99 percent chance of a magnitude 8 earthquake hitting areas off Miyagi Prefecture within 30 years. He led efforts to organize local groups for disaster prevention, holding seminars for residents, conducting evacuation simulations, and having discussions with officers from the Self-Defense Forces for that fateful day.
Warning against a large quake and tsunami had been one of the pillars of his safety efforts, he said.
“I might have been called a boy who cried wolf,” he said during a recent interview with The Japan Times, explaining that while he was making all those warnings, only tsunami measuring in the tens of centimeters were ever being detected.
This gave some residents a false sense that they would not be hit by the big one, he said.
So when the March tsunami hit, some residents didn’t react until it was too late.
He saw people in the tsunami’s path, clinging to debris, struggling not to drown, but he was helpless to come to their aid.
The twin disasters left almost 10 percent of the town’s 16,000 residents dead or missing, including Mayor Koki Kato and more than 30 other town officials. Roughly 70 percent of the buildings were either destroyed or damaged.
“Certainly, I should have talked much more forcefully” about the imminent danger of earthquakes and tsunami to residents, Ikarigawa said. “I really regret (not doing) that.”
He said he and his wife visited all of the town’s provisional housing units for a month from around mid-July. Some residents had lost family members and their houses and were wondering if rebuilding their homes on their original sites was even possible.
“I sensed a variety of concerns and inconvenience” felt by the residents, Ikarigawa said.
He assumed the mayoral post in August and says he has no time to waste.
“I have to realize people’s wishes to have (their town) reconstructed as soon as possible and to mitigate their concerns,” he said.
He believes compiling a reconstruction plan — which he aims to complete by the end of the year — will give residents the hope and courage needed to move forward.
To compile the plan, the town office said it is going to have residents discuss the future of their own communities.
Ikarigawa said the town’s lost industrial and economic infrastructure must be rebuilt to prevent residents from moving away. According to the town office, more than 1,000 residents have left Otsuchi since the March disasters.
He believes reconstruction work will generate new employment for a certain period of time. He knows, however, that the long-term stability of people’s lives can’t be ensured unless the local fishing sector, Otsuchi’s main industry, is revived.
The town’s shrinking population is clouding the prospects of revival.
The population of Otsuchi, like many rural areas in Japan in recent years, has dwindled as younger generations move to bigger cities and the remaining residents get older.
Ikarigawa fears some evacuees will never return to Otsuchi again.
Rebuilding the town in its original shape has no meaning unless the young return, he said.
“The town is in a crisis. It may continue to exist or it may disappear,” he said. “To stop people from moving out, we have to promote local industries and create jobs.”
Creating Otsuchi’s brand and promoting the town’s products will be the keys to promoting the local economy, Ikarigawa said.
“I don’t mind at all — even if I have to hoist a flag and walk in Ginza,” he said.
Ikarigawa, meanwhile, has some words for the central government on rebuilding the devastated communities in the Tohoku region.
The mayor said he hopes the central government will purchase inundated land, while the town attempts to regulate the reconstruction of homes in those areas.
He also indicated that the government should shoulder the cost of reconstruction.
Looking back on the past six months, Ikarigawa said, “I feel like I am still in a nightmare. . . . I want to wake up.”
But he knows everything that happened in the town was real.
“Thinking about the regret of all victims, quick reconstruction of the town will best serve the deceased,” Ikarigawa said. “I will not be defeated by rain or wind. . . . I would like to free people who are really mourning and saddened from their concerns.”
Ikarigawa is asking the global community to lend a hand, suggesting Fukushima is not the only place severely damaged by the disasters.
“Otsuchi is in such a state of devastation now,” he said. “I would really like people not to forget about us, but to support us.
“Any kind of help is welcome.”