Saturday 27 May 2017

Swept away: sleepy port that forgot past lessons

Peter Foster in Rikuzen-Takata

THE warnings did sound last Friday but, Iwako Onodera said, no one paid them much attention, and certainly not at her house two miles inland, out of sight of the sea in a valley that was once carpeted with orchards and rice paddies.

"My parents died in the house," said the 52-year-old dental nurse who was salvaging a few clothes from a cupboard on the second floor that only just escaped the rising tide. "Who ever thought the waters would come this far?"

But the waters did come, funnelling furiously up the Y-shaped river valley, ripping and twisting the railway track from its sleepers, collecting debris as it went. By the time it reached Mrs Onodera's house, the water was still travelling with sufficient force to rip out the front wall.

"They found my parents at the gate, trying to get out, but there was no chance for them," she said.

Back down at Takata's ground zero, the human cost is being counted in piles on the sides of roads that have been bulldozed through the wreckage to afford the rescue workers access. In many places the debris is piled 15ft high.

Takata is a town that failed to heed the lessons of history and on Friday, at about half-past three in the afternoon, it paid for this act of collective amnesia with its very existence.

Nothing is left of this somnolent port of 24,000 people. Every building of two storeys or less has been flattened; as many as 10,000 of its inhabitants are dead.

The tragedy, says 73-year-old Tsuyoshi Kinno, is that the town should have known better. On May 23, 1960, a 12ft tsunami triggered by the Great Chilean Earthquake hit Takata, inflicting serious damage. But the town was rebuilt.

When the earthquake struck last week and the tsunami sirens sounded, more than a thousand people evacuated to the community centre, just a few hundred yards from the shoreline.

"When I saw the people in the community centre, I told them to get out," Mr Kinno said.

"I told them this was not an intelligent place to be."

He tried desperately to move the people, ushering a group of about 60 out of the building, up the street and past the police station to the City Hall, a four-storey building that offered a chance of survival. Mr Kinno was already too late.

"It was black. A wave of blackness that was swallowing up the town. It was so big, so powerful. It just went over the second floor, swallowing the two-storey houses. The ocean was black, it was as if the ocean was attacking us."

Mr Kinno, who had returned to Takata to perform his duties as neighbourhood warden after feeling the quake while in his car, estimates that 40 of the group were taken by the wave before they even reached City Hall. Five more drowned on the stairwell. About 15 made it to the roof and survived.



Wasteland

"From the top floor we watched everything get swallowed," he said.

"People relied too much on the order and bureaucracy. They became too obedient. In the olden times, they would have just got straight to the mountains, to higher ground."

The extent of the destruction defies the imagination. Entering the town along a winding mountain road, the vista opens to reveal a wasteland that stretches three or four miles down to the sea.

Descriptions of the town before the tsunami tell of a sleepy, picture-perfect rural Japanese port whose main attraction was a Museum of Sea and Shells that drew about 20,000 visitors a year.

Now there are so many dead, the body bags have run out. Bodies are laid on salvaged mattresses, wrapped in duvets to await collection by volunteers driving a Suzuki pickup.

In a sports centre, high on the headland where the people should have taken refuge, those searching for loved ones stand in a daze, perusing noticeboards in the hope of a miracle. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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