Tsunami hero continuing disaster education efforts

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff Writer

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, regional governments have been reviewing their disaster plans and enhancing preparations, from boosting buildings’ quake resistance to increasing their stockpiles of emergency food and blankets for immediate use.

While taking such measures is undoubtedly crucial, Toshitaka Katada, a civil engineering professor at Gunma University, believes the most important element that needs to be addressed is disaster survival education.

“Many disaster measures taken by governments seem to center on supporting people who managed to survive, but the priority of disaster prevention is to ensure that no one dies. To accomplish that, educating children and nurturing the ability of people to save their own lives is necessary,” said Katada, a disaster prevention specialist.

His words are convincing. Katada was behind the education program that helped save the lives of nearly all 3,000 elementary and junior high school students in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.

When the tsunami rolled in on March 11, 2011, the children responded quickly by applying what they had learned in a city program that had been running for several years under Katada’s guidance.

Their immediate evacuation led others to follow suit. And while they expeditiously ran toward higher and safer ground, the older students helped the younger children. Consequently, the students not only saved their own lives but also those of many others in the community.

Of the nearly 1,000 people who died in Kamaishi, only five were school-age children, and they happened to be away from school when the disaster struck.

It wasn’t just a matter of knowing the importance of running to higher ground. According to Katada, it was the children’s proactive will to evacuate and survive that enabled them to make the right moves, which is where the program in Kamaishi places special emphasis.

Katada stressed that people should instinctively know when it’s time to evacuate, and not wait to be told to do so.

This isn’t easy, because people generally tend to assume they’re going to survive, and that discourages them from evacuating, he said. Overcoming this weakness is a crucial part of disaster education.

“It’s more about knowing yourself than the enemy,” Katada said.

Initially specializing in floods, Katada came to focus on tsunami after seeing the tragic aftermath of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004.

He became very concerned that even though Japan’s coastal regions have been warned that major earthquakes can strike, the alert level among the public was low. This was true on the Sanriku coast, which stretches from Iwate to Miyagi prefectures.

Katada recalled how shocked he was when children in the Sanriku region said without hesitating that if an earthquake hits, the large breakwater nearby would protect them so there would be no need to evacuate. Even if the breakwater is engulfed, the children told Katada, they still wouldn’t run to higher ground because the adults around them wouldn’t.

“This was a big problem. Children can’t choose the environment they are born into, and they look at the grown-ups around them and do what they do. If those children lose their lives to tsunami, the fault lies with not just the parents but all adults and society,” he said. “I was determined to do something to save the lives of the children.”

Initially, the teachers in Kamaishi were reluctant to work on disaster prevention because the school curriculum was already full. Eventually, Katada’s concern and enthusiasm moved them and together they worked on developing classroom activities to teach the children about the nature of earthquakes and tsunami as well as the importance of evacuating. The children participated in many drills as well.

The professor placed special emphasis on urging the kids not to trust hazard maps based on past disasters, because no one can predict nature’s power. He also told them that once a disaster hits, make every effort to escape, so don’t just give up.

Finally, Katada encouraged the children to be the first ones to evacuate in the event of an emergency.

“In general, people don’t evacuate even though they know they should. It’s natural to be reluctant to escape when everybody else is staying put. So I told the students that they must be brave and be the first ones to evacuate. If you do, others will follow you and you can save their lives, too. That’s exactly what happened.”

Another factor, Katada said, is that many people tend to rely too much on the government to tell them what to do. He warns about the risk of being passive. “What’s at stake is your life, and you shouldn’t rely on the government to save that. You have to save your own life,” he said.

These days, Katada receives many inquiries from local educators and even companies across the country seeking his advice. He energetically travels near and far, sharing the lessons learned from Kamaishi that Katada feels can be applied to any hazard that people might face. “In the end, what’s important is how you face that risk, and how you can respond proactively.”

Meanwhile, Katada continues to visit Kamaishi and plans to do so for years to come to carry forward the disaster education program. This is because, he said, by continuing to educate children to be proactive responders, this wisdom will be infused in society and become part of the culture.

“In two decades, those children will be parents. If they grow up to be adults who know how to act, their children will act accordingly,” he said, “I believe it’s our responsibility to nurture such an environment for the generations to come.”

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