Preparation saved one island’s residents

All residents escaped half hour before tsunami hit


On a small island about 30 minutes by boat from Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, Kisako Utsumi, 68, felt herself swept off her feet by the force of the March 11 tsunami.

Houses were being torn apart around her. “I was terrified,” she recalled.

The tsunami triggered by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake swept away half of about 50 houses on Nonoshima Island, one of the group of Urato Islands north of Sendai.

But none of the approximately 80 residents on the island was killed by the tsunami, thanks to a disaster prevention map and an evacuation route created more than half a century ago.

They had also prepared for the possibility of disaster by conducting emergency drills over and over.

In the scant 30 minutes that elapsed between the quake and the arrival of the massive tsunami, town officials knocked on the doors of every home, urging residents to evacuate.

Using a special 2-meter-wide evacuation route that local residents had cleared through a bamboo grove, they fled to a local elementary and junior high school that was built on higher ground.

The disaster prevention map was drawn up with the help of Toyohiko Miyagi, a geology professor at Tohoku Gakuin University in Miyagi Prefecture. The map listed an evacuation route for every resident on the island.

“As an island, we can’t depend on the government for a quick rescue and aid operation (in emergencies),” one of the residents said.

“We have been calling for the importance of disaster preparation through a close island network,” said Torao Suzuki, 72, who heads the island’s administrative district. “It paid off.”

Electricity and water were cut by the twin disasters, but evacuees cooked at the school’s kitchen, using propane gas. Residents brought over fish and other ingredients that had been set aside and they shared the meal.

They washed their clothes with the water in the pool, and a small boat that survived the disasters was used to transport residents to and from Shiogama.

Many of the residents are elderly people who farm oysters to earn a living. But most gave up after tools and other facilities were swept away by the tsunami.

Because there isn’t enough land on higher ground, temporary shelters have not been built yet, forcing residents who cannot afford to restore their houses to evacuate.

Amid the chaos of reconstruction, Nonoshima’s administrative district decided to host the annual fireworks festival in August it has been holding for the more than two decades.

“We need to create momentum to rebuild the island,” said Suzuki. “We will host it even if we need to ask for a loan.”

One day at the end of April, about 50 local residents, some of whom had already planned to leave the island in the near future, gathered to have drinks under cherry blossoms overlooking the sea.

“The island will revive someday. Please come back,” said Hisao Suzuki, 68, in a speech before the toast, drawing a round of applause.