It was three months after a dozen people were killed last July in mudslides triggered heavy rains in the town of Kumano, Hiroshima Prefecture, that five local residents formed a group aimed at reconstructing the area.
The five didn’t really know each other before the mudslides swallowed up the area, dubbed Ohara Heights, damaging 41 houses and forcing residents to evacuate. But they shared a sense of crisis — that they couldn’t get the information they needed. They also felt compelled to unite in order to better convey the opinions of local residents to the municipality officials spearheading the reconstruction effort. The group’s effort gradually paid off, gaining it trust and support from local residents as well as from the municipality.
A year after the disaster, the group’s story exemplifies the challenges residents of Ohara Heights faced in trying to pick up the pieces of lives destroyed by the disaster.
In November, a month after the association was launched, the group’s efforts bore fruit when Kumano extended the period of time victims were allowed to stay in temporary housing.
Enhancing disaster prevention was also a key mission of the group, such as creating evacuation route maps to raise awareness about disaster prevention.
Since the founding members also lacked disaster-prevention knowledge, they asked lawyers and engineers they knew for help. In addition, they learned what similar residential groups in other disaster-hit areas had done in the past.
The association slowly deepened ties with a neighborhood association and the municipality. Once a month, the association organized a seminar on disaster prevention to raise awareness among the residents of the housing compound.
The association and the local government jointly carried out an evacuation drill last month in which about 80 people took part.
The residents’ association also conducted activities aimed at strengthening ties in the community. In times of disaster, a lack of social cohesion can hamper evacuations.
The group holds regularly events, such as the planting of flowers to spruce up the area, so residents can get to know each other. To commemorate the victims, the group sets up a table where it provides flowers on the sixth day of the month.
For Yukie Kirioka, 71, who lost her husband and their home in the mudslide, the residential group is one of her sources of support. She actively participates in the group’s events.
“The group’s activities were really comforting,” Kirioka said. “I want to be part of the Ohara Heights recovery efforts.”
Not everyone has returned to the housing compound, though. At present, there are only about 70 households living in Ohara Heights, about 60 percent of the pre-disaster level.
Some are not sure whether the area is safe. About 15,000 cu. meters of sediment has piled up on unstable parts of Mount Mitsuiwa where the mudslides occurred last year. The prefecture, as an emergency measure, is planning to install three dams to prevent future mudslides.
Two of them will be completed in early December.
In addition, parts of Ohara Heights, which was built in the 1970s, were not designated mudslide zones while others were simply not affected, creating varying degrees of understanding toward the association’s activities. Increasing its membership is a pressing issue.
“New issues will emerge when the dam is completed and more people return to the area,” said Satoshi Noda, 60, who is one of the founding members of the group. “We want to make sure residents’ needs are met.”
After the storm
As this month marks the first anniversary of torrential rain in western Japan, the Chugoku Shimbun has talked to several current and former residents of Ohara Heights, a residential area built in the 1970s that housed 315 residents in 113 households before the disaster. Here are some of their stories.
Yukie Kirioka, 71
At one area of an empty lot, where the house of Yukie Kirioka, 71, used to live with her late husband, there is a small flower bed. Kirioka built it in May and planted dogwood flower seeds and trees — her favorite.
The flower bed is also the spot where her husband, Katsuharu, was found dead after the mudslides engulfed their home.
“I wanted to make the flower bed somewhat his grave so that I can come visit him whenever I want right away,” Kirioka said.
Kirioka was at her home with her husband on that day. Feeling apprehensive over the torrential downpour, she went down stairs from the second floor. Immediately after she reached the first floor, a mudslide wiped away their home.
She survived after being rescued by neighbors. Katsuharu, who was on the first floor, didn’t.
Sustaining serious injuries on her hands and legs, she was hospitalized for about a month. After being discharged, she moved into a public housing unit run by the prefecture 2 km away from Ohara Heights.
Memories with her husband, with whom she had been together for about 50 years, flash across her mind to this day. Some nights, she says tears roll down her cheeks uncontrollably.
In mid-May, Kirioka scattered Katsuharu’s ashes into the Seto Inland Sea.
“I was overwhelmed with the surge of emotion,” she said when she was seeing the ashes sinking in the sea.
She still can’t believe what happened. To this day, she feels it was an illusion.
The residential group was one of her sources of support, she said. She actively participated in the group’s activities like seminars on disaster prevention and decorating the housing compound with flowers.
“The group’s activities were really comforting,” Kirioka said.
She goes to the flower bed in Ohara Heights almost every day. Even though she plans to stay at her current dwelling, she hopes to maintain ties with the residents from Ohara Heights.
“I want to be part of the Ohara Heights recovery efforts,” she said.
Yoshihide Sumoto, 65
Sumoto evacuated with his neighbors, an elderly couple, via his car when torrential rain hit the region on June 7. Before last year’s disaster, the couple and Sumoto only used to exchange greetings when they met and weren’t that close. But after the disaster, they made a pact that in case of an emergency, he would come get them.
He participates in events hosted by the association and makes connections with people from the housing compound. Once the sand dams are complete, he thinks more residents will return to this area.
He hopes Ohara Heights will be a place where residents look after one another and the elderly can feel safe living there.
Sanae Mizoguchi, 57, company worker
The day before a local evacuation drill took place on June 2, Mizoguchi stayed at her home overnight for the first time in a year.
But she could not get to sleep, feeling worried about the weather outside. To this day, whenever she hears the sound of the falling rain, her heart starts racing and she gets distracted, she says.
Mizoguchi hopes to return to her home from her temporary housing by the end of the year. She says she needs to get adjusted gradually. She also hopes she has discussions with her family and neighbors regularly about what she has learned at disaster prevention seminars, such as when to evacuate and urge neighbors to leave.
Keiji Mihara, 43, company worker
On the day the disaster hit, even though Mihara’s family safely evacuated and survived, mud swept away everything, including his home. He built a grave for his dog, who went missing after the mudslide, on the site where the house previously stood.
His family decided to leave the residential area because the place reminds them of loss and fear from the torrential rain.
He just started rebuilding his life and hopes that similar tragedies wouldn’t happen again. Even though he has relocated, he says he wants to support the recovery of the housing compound from afar.
Mitsue Wakatake, 61, welfare facility employee
Wakatake returned to her home located in the housing complex from her evacuation site last October. She says she has a strong attachment to her home, which she has lived in for 30 years. Since the day of the disaster, when she witnessed the devastation as she was left behind, she has not been in good health.
Her home stands at the end of the valley of the mountain where mud slid last year, and she feels anxious even if the sand dams are completed.
She is terrified thinking about how far she needs to evacuate if a similar disaster happens. At the same time, she says she is resolved to protect herself as long as she lives at her home.
This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on June 17.