On the evening of July 6, New Zealander John Gillespie was relaxing in his house in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, drinking a few beers and watching the FIFA World Cup on TV with his 8-year-old son. Upstairs, his 6-year-old daughter was asleep and his wife, Nagisa, was watching TV in the living room.
Outside it was raining heavily, but Gillespie wasn’t too concerned. He’d received countless disaster warnings before on his cellphone that had turned out to be nothing significant.
At around 11 p.m. he heard a very loud boom and felt a shock wave.
“I thought, though, that simply lightning had struck next door so carried on with my evening,” he says. The boom was a chemical explosion at the Asahi Aluminium Industrial Plant in the nearby city of Soja, caused by the torrential rain pounding western Japan.
Next morning, Gillespie, 39, got up just before 7 a.m. and went outside to look around. Although the narrow road behind his house was flooded, the main road perpendicular to it was not.
After that, things happened surprisingly fast. By 8, the main road had turned into a river and water was gushing in through the back gate. Around 9:30, water started entering the house from the front and the back.
Gillespie, who works as an NET (native English teacher) for Kurashiki, says that he wasn’t panicking as the water level wasn’t rising fast.
“I was just going over in my head 1,000 times, ‘Have we got enough water and cheese here? We’ve got enough cheese and water so we’ll be fine,” he says. “So I took the chilly bin (ice box) upstairs, including a few beers, too.”
The four of them waited in the main bedroom while the water level slowly crept up toward the second floor. Gillespie recalls a surreal mood as the family took in the “Emperor’s grandstand view” of the disaster unfolding around them. A break in the rain brought a spell of beautiful sunny weather. Meanwhile, their neighbors’ BMW floated by.
Yet Gillespie wasn’t blind to the danger his family faced as the water kept rising.
“The sun was shining in the windows as the water went up and up and up and I would go and have a cigarette break on the staircase. Pretty much every cigarette break I was back up a step, up a step,” he says.
Gillespie began “gaming out scenarios” of how to escape if the second floor flooded too.
“Do we have to float out the window and get onto the roof? Is it going to go over the roof? My main worry, if we had to get out into the water, was getting snagged and dragged under. The color of the water, it looked like f—— Australian beer. If someone goes under you are never gonna find them.”
Scale of the disaster hits home
At 11:30 a.m., with water approaching the first floor ceiling, Gillespie saw the first sign of the nascent rescue effort, as a Self-Defense Forces boat passed in the distance.
“There was only one boat and they came back and back and picked up more and more people,” Gillespie says. Then, at 2 p.m., just as the rain began falling heavily again, the boat pulled up by their window.
Carrying four bags containing essentials, Gillespie got out of the window first and, standing on the roof, passed his kids to one of the crew. Then his wife got on. There were only five or six seats at the back of the boat and they still had to pick up about the same number of people from a neighboring house.
“There was this really old lady,” recalls Gillespie. “They were trying to get her over the balcony fence and she was shaking in fear and saying how scared she was. There were two army guys trying to get her over the fence. They did it, but all their family were on the balcony so they couldn’t help, so I stood up and cradled this woman like a baby, then sat back down awkwardly trying not to fall out of the boat. There was nothing else I could do but cradle her.”
The boat then headed to the drop-off point by the Ibara train line, where there was a river bank still above water, and it was then that Gillespie says the scale of the disaster hit home.
“I came to a realization about how terrible things had become and how everyone I know there, all our lives had changed. I had time to think that out and started crying pretty hard out on the way back to the bank.”
From the bank, the family hitched a ride on a fire truck to an evacuation point at a waste disposal area upriver. There, they sheltered and waited to be picked up by Nagisa’s brother.
Compounding family tragedy
Meanwhile, Glen Evans, also an NET in Kurashiki and a close friend of Gillespie’s, was still trapped in his house on the other side of Mabicho with his wife, Nozomi, and 4-year-old daughter, Renee.
Only two days prior, his mother, who had ovarian cancer, passed away in Australia after her condition suddenly deteriorated. He was unable to see her one last time, yet he went to work as normal.
“It was at school during the day that I found myself really feeling the full impact of it,” Evans says. “I was going into private rooms in the school and having a good bawl, and coming back into the staffroom and wiping my eyes and getting ready for the next class.”
Before he’d had time to properly grieve, disaster struck his home in Japan. Evans’ house began to flood later than Gillespie’s, but the water picked up pace in the afternoon.
“By about midday it was already into the first floor and was coming up the stairs, and then for the next four hours it just kept coming up,” Evans says. “But I thought, we have still got our island. Our island is the second floor and provided it doesn’t come up here, theoretically we can stay here. But it did.”
Being family friends, the Gillespies decided not to leave until the Evanses arrived at the evacuation point, but cellular communication had broken down, and the last they’d heard was that the Evanses were stranded.
“Once I got to the riverbank I realized this was the one boat evacuating people, and Glen and his family live in a very populated area. I told Nagi and the kids to wait in the gomi (trash) station and ran back down the bank for 10 minutes, but I couldn’t see Glen’s house.”
On the way, though, Gillespie met a trio of volunteers from Kurashiki and helped them offload their boat from their vehicle.
“Then a light bulb went on above my head,” he says, “and I ran back to the gomi station. I said, ‘Give me that life vest, I’ve got an idea.'”
They had a children’s life vest, which his daughter had worn when they evacuated.
“I ran back down to these guys, waved the life vest and said, ‘We’ve got a 2-year-old out there,'” says Gillespie.
The boat owner, Dai Hasegawa, who was not to know that Renee was in fact 4, agreed to take Gillespie and they set off for Evans’ house.
By this time, the top floor of the home was beginning to flood.
“At that point I thought, ‘We no longer have an island — we have to get out,'” Evans says. “But even at this stage, after a whole day of flooding, there was no sign of anyone coming to rescue us on our side of town.”
Carrying some bags, including emergency supplies, and children’s flotation devices, they moved out onto the second-floor deck.
“External water was up to the level of the deck. By that time equilibrium had been reached between water inside the house and outside, and the deck was vulnerable from either direction,” Evans says. “I was thinking, ‘We are going to have to paddle our way out.'”
‘What an amazing friend’
As the landscape had transformed due to the floodwaters, Gillespie got lost, making the journey far longer and more arduous.
As he and Hasegawa struggled to traverse the muddy, debris-ridden floodwaters, they passed innumerable victims still stranded in their houses.
“There were people hanging out the windows saying, ‘Hey, how about me?’ and we had to say, ‘Ah, um, don’t worry, we’ll be back.’ … We must have said it 40 or 50 times. It was real hard.”
But with the help of a couple of business signs to navigate by they were able to get into a nearby street Gillespie recognized, but the propeller began to play up and they had to oar the last leg of the journey.
“I was yelling out ‘Nozomi, Nozomi,’ his wife’s name, and then sure enough we came around this house and there they were, standing on their balcony up to their shins in water.”
“So we approached the balcony and Glen was laughing his tits off, and he said, ‘What took you so long?’ So we pulled up and he got me laughing too.”
The boat could carry five adults, but Gillespie was troubled by all the stranded people they had passed, so the two friends decided to hold onto the side of the boat and get towed along, enabling two more people to fit in. But this carried dangers of its own.
“You are getting hit by trees and s— underneath,” says Gillespie. “I was really concerned that something sharp would cut my guts on the way through.”
En route back they saw something splashing about in the water.
“Oh, it’s a little bird having a bath over there,'” Gillespie remembers thinking. “What it was was a dog on its last legs trying to keep its snout, only its two nostrils, above the surface of the water. We hauled this dog into the boat and the dog was completely f——— wasted and had complete shock on its face.”
At around 5 p.m. they finally pulled up at the bank of the Takahashi River, and that is when Evans saw the “whole reality” of the situation.
“The whole levy was just full of cars, fire engines and trucks,” he says. “And all the time there were boats coming and going from the levy all the way along it — these were private boats.”
They climbed up the bank and began walking toward the bridge where Nagisa had been waiting with the children.
“Nagi and my wife burst into tears and had a good, long teary hug, realizing that everyone was alive and safe,” Evans says.
After reuniting, the weary but relieved troupe piled into Nagisa’s brother’s car and went, in their soaked clothing, to a 7-Eleven in Soja to decompress over a few drinks and a bite to eat.
“It was very, very strange,” says Evans. “All you had to do was drive from one side of the bridge to the other and all there was was this untouched, pristine city on the other side of the river and in complete functionality and had suffered nothing.
“It was such a wild kaleidoscope of feelings — a sense of relief, a sense of gratitude, and a sense of just utter ‘We have just lost everything, but we are all alive.'”
Evans says he has now come to fully appreciate the risks involved and the significance of Gillespie coming to rescue him.
“That was one of those moments when you think, what an amazing friend, what an amazing act on his part,” Evans says, “for him to say ‘OK’ to his own family, Nagi and his two kids, ‘I’m gonna leave you now and go and get Glen’s family.’ I mean, he came to my veranda in a boat and rescued my wife and daughter.
“I was confident we were going to be able to swim out, but maybe that was misplaced,” Evans says. “It could have been incredibly difficult. Who knows if we would have made it to dry land under our own steam and the limit of flotation devices we had.
“He is not just a mate anymore, he’s a very special dude that did something that I doubt I will ever be able to reciprocate. I hope we are never in a position where I have to reciprocate,” he says. “I hope we are never in a position where we have to go through that s— again.”
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Mabicho took the brunt of the damage
Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture is the sister city of Christchurch, New Zealand, the hometown of flood victim John Gillespie. Located on the northwestern fringe of the city, Mabicho is a small, unremarkable place not unlike so much of Japan’s semi-urban sprawl, with its nondescript houses, low-rise apartments, parking lots, pachinko parlors, rice fields and roads.
Yet the district’s location in a basin at the fork of the Takahashi and Oda rivers leaves it vulnerable to flooding. When western Japan was struck by a super-typhoon in early July, Mabicho was one of the hardest-hit areas in what became the country’s worst weather disaster since the Nagasaki floods 36 years ago.
More than a week of torrential rain left 226 dead across Japan, and of that number almost a quarter — 51, most of them elderly — were in Mabicho.
The severe flooding caused by the Oda River bursting its banks was an especially devastating blow to this community of 23,000. Over 4,600 homes were flooded in Mabicho alone, and at the peak of the disaster over 2,500 people were living in evacuation shelters across the city.
People who wish to support the victims of the Kurashiki flood and Mabicho’s recovery can donate to The Official Disaster Relief Fund of the City of Kurashiki at www.city.kurashiki.okayama.jp/donations.