Are our schools ready for a big one?


Every few months, I have the same nightmare: A major earthquake strikes Tokyo when my kids are at school. The city is in ruins. There’s no electricity, the phones are out and the trains have stopped. I run through the streets, unable to find my children, until I wake up in a cold sweat.

The last time I had the dream, I went to my kids’ school to find out what would happen if a major earthquake hit. Would the teachers keep the children at school? Or would they move to the neighborhood hinanjo (evacuation area), a large park near our apartment?

The vice principal was reassuring. He explained the various ways the school prepares, including the monthly hinan kunren (disaster drills), in which students learn what to do if the building starts to shake. They are taught to get under their desks to protect their heads, then grab their bosai zukin, a padded hood that doubles as a seat cushion. Not all schools require them, but every child at our school has one.

If a real earthquake strikes and it seems unsafe to keep the children inside the building, the teachers will evacuate the students to the schoolyard. Teachers will stay with the children in or near the school until parents can come pick them up, the vice principal assured me.

He reminded me that I already know the procedure for collecting my kids in the event of a disaster. Parents are required to participate in our school’s annual hikiwatashi kunren. Many schools hold this drill, in which parents pick up students, on Sept. 1, the anniversary of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that killed 140,000 people in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. But our school switched the drill to May, shortly after the beginning of the school year, so new families could be trained as soon as possible.

The drill is scheduled in advance, and parents have to come on foot because an earthquake could make streets impassable for bicycles or cars. We wait outside the school gate until 1 p.m., when everyone pretends disaster sirens have been sounded. In the classrooms, teachers review disaster procedures and have the kids get their belongings together. Ten minutes later, the gate opens and parents file into the school, moving according to detailed instructions sent home before the drill.

During my school’s hikiwatashi kunren, I joined the orderly crowd moving up the central staircase, heading to the top floor because parents with more than one child pick up the older one first. I stood in a line of parents outside my fifth-grader’s classroom. When it was my turn, I identified myself to a teacher at the door. She consulted a clipboard to confirm that I was authorized to pick up my son, checked off his name and called him to the door. He was wearing his disaster hood. Together, we went down the back staircase (to keep out of the way of parents still entering the school) and picked up his younger brother from the second floor. The kids had to keep their disaster hoods on until we were off the school grounds.

In addition to such drills, the school periodically brings in an earthquake simulator, a small truck with a box mounted on it that is fitted up like a room in a house. A few kids at a time get into the box and get shaken around as the truck simulates earthquakes of various magnitudes. They are taught to turn off gas appliances and to dive under the table. This contraption is called the yurayura-go, which my kids rendered into English as “The Rocky-Rock Express.”

I felt better after talking to the vice principal, but the truth is you can’t ever prepare adequately for true disaster. And schools don’t really know what to expect because no major earthquake in recent history has struck when schools were in session. The Great Hanshin Earthquake, for example, hit Kobe on Jan. 17, 1995 at 5:46 in the morning. It killed more than 6,300 people and left over 300,000 homeless. Eight-five percent of the city’s schools were damaged, and 178 students and 11 teachers were killed. Losses would have certainly been higher had the earthquake hit a few hours later when children were in school.

The effect of the Kobe earthquake on schools went far beyond physical damage. Immediately after it hit, people who could escape their homes congregated in schoolyards, usually the closest open space, because frequent aftershocks made it unsafe to be indoors. Most didn’t have warm clothing or even shoes, and when they could no longer endure the cold, they built bonfires on the school grounds. Gradually, victims drifted inside, spontaneously transforming schools into refugee centers.

Of Kobe’s 345 public schools, 218 became evacuation centers that housed 136,295 refugees. Some schools doubled as hospitals or morgues. Teachers and administrators unexpectedly played key roles in relief efforts, handing out supplies, organizing message centers and even providing medical treatment. Meanwhile, teachers had to continue lessons to the extent possible, and help their students cope with grief and fear.

In a major disaster, our school, which normally houses 300 students, would take in up to 3,000 refugees, our vice principal told me. There are storerooms in the school full of blankets, first-aid supplies, canned water and disaster rations.

“We are as prepared as we can be,” the vice principal said, “but, really, I hope there never is a major earthquake.”

Me, too. But I’ve finally made the recommended preparations. I’ve got backpacks of emergency supplies ready by our door. I’ve talked to my kids, and they know the teachers will keep them safe until I can come pick them up at school.

It’s not much. But I’m sleeping a little better at night.