SENDAI – Yuko Tanno, a supermarket worker who survived the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region, says she will definitely move back to her old neighborhood, where she lost her 13-year-old son to the massively high waves.
“The landscape is different from the time right after the quake and tsunami. To me, that makes me feel I am moving somewhere new,” Tanno said, looking at the large open space where her house once stood in the seaside community of Yuriage, Miyagi Prefecture, where almost everything was flattened and washed away.
The Yuriage district, located between the prefectural capital of Sendai and the city’s airport, has recently seen the commencement of new post-disaster projects, including the construction of roads and dwellings on land raised several meters above sea level.
On Oct. 1, a marathon took place with about 11,000 runners passing through tsunami-hit areas in Miyagi, including Yuriage, as a symbol of post-disaster rehabilitation.
“I feel grateful to hear so many people coming to our area from all over Japan” to take part in the Tohoku-Miyagi Revive Marathon, said the 48-year-old Tanno. “I hope the event will encourage many families in the country to talk more about how they can protect themselves from natural disasters.”
She added, however, that she wants people to remember there is still be much work to be done before the community can be satisfied with its reconstruction.
More than 18,000 lives were lost in the Tohoku region and other areas as a result of the twin disasters.
About 750 people were killed in the Yuriage district, which had a population of nearly 5,500 before the disaster, according to the Memoire de Yuriage museum, a prefabricated one-story building that stores tsunami-related photos, videos and artifacts.
The museum keeps a large aerial photo of Yuriage before the tsunami, as well as models made by local children during the course of post-disaster psychological care.
According to the museum, the children, traumatized by the disaster, learned they could express themselves freely by making miniature models of exactly what they saw. One such model depicts a blue tarp covering a pile bearing the Japanese word for “bodies.”
They also created a model of a hypothetical future Yuriage that has a high-rise evacuation tower with a heliport and even a submarine to carry evacuees.
Yuriage still remains largely empty, with rubble and weed-strewn plots lining the streets and a few new buildings and surviving structures dotted sporadically across the landscape.
Many of the former residents, including Tanno and the 76-year-old museum head, Masayoshi Kosai, live in temporary housing, and some have had second thoughts about immediately coming back.
Koichi Sakurai, head of a food market cooperative in Yuriage, also welcomed the marathon, hoping it keeps the lessons of the quake and tsunami alive.
Sakurai, 63, called on the runners and others involved in the race to further discussions about disaster prevention in each family as well as among communities.
“The stories of what we experienced should be handed down from generation to generation, especially in school education,” Sakurai said.
A number of natural disaster drills have taken place across the country, but Sakurai criticized some communities for only going through the motions by gathering in a neighborhood yard and chatting.
During the race, some runners dropped by the Yuriage museum, which is located near the 32-km mark, and a nearby monument to the 14 students of Yuriage Junior High School who died in the tsunami, including Tanno’s son, Kota.
“I learned that there were runners who knew what kind of place Yuriage is, for which I am grateful,” Tanno said.
Farther up the coast, Arahama Elementary School saved the lives of 320 people when the surrounding area was hit by the deadly earthquake and tsunami.
Pupils, residents and school personnel evacuated to the building when the tsunami warning came, and moved onto the roof as the waves arrived and the water rose.
Six years on, the school, located in Arahama on the outskirts of Sendai, is now open to the public as a museum and memorial.
While some of the classrooms and corridors now house exhibits and information, others have been left as they were after the tsunami debris was cleared.
The scale of the disaster can be seen in the tide marks on the walls, showing the height the water reached, and in the smashed windows and buckled railings.
A sign, bearing the words “Thank you, Arahama Elementary School,” painted by former pupils, was installed in March 2016 when the school was officially closed. The building was opened to the public in April.
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