A City Claimed by the Sea: Surviving the Great East Japan Earthquake
On March 11, 2011 Japan trembled from the force of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Fifty-foot tsunamis rocked the northeastern coasts and demolished everything in their path. Homes and automobiles were thrown about like toys, gas lines ruptured, forests and debris burst into flames, and nuclear power plants were pushed to the brink of meltdown.
What follows is the story of those harrowing days of crisis, told by Steven Mendoza, an English teacher from the United States, who lived through the worst natural disaster in Japan’s history, in a city that was claimed by the sea…
The building that I was in began to shake, it felt like it was in a truck going over a bumpy road, it was strong and violent. Being born and raised in California, I had been through my fair share of earthquakes, but this was different: it didn’t stop. Almost two or so minutes passed, books came off the shelf, cabinets opened, and nerves were frayed.
The school where I taught was not officially in session on the day of what came to be called the Great East Japan earthquake, so the only students who were there were those participating in club activities — baseball, basketball, etc. This meant that most of the teachers at Shizugawa high school had a light work day. But when the quake hit we were called into action: we evacuated from the school building to the baseball field to join the students who were previously in a practice session. I made my way through the students to see if I could calm some of them down, or joke with them to lighten the situation. Most of the students were in alright moods and joked back. Some students were crying, but most were okay. The ground continued to shake. The aftershocks continued to throttle us, they were strong and constant.
At around 3:00 or so, the teachers began to spread the word of a tsunami warning. The week prior we had a small tsunami warning, and, being located on the Pacific coast of Japan, we faced several of these warnings regularly throughout the year. But then teachers began to mention the size of the projected tsunami: a six-meter wall of ocean was expected to hit my town. I remember thinking, “no, that can’t be right, it will probably be smaller and cause flooding.”
The First Tsunami Hits
Shizugawa High School • 3:30 p.m.
Shizugawa High School is an evacuati on center and is on high ground overlooking the town, and soon cars began arriving, which we made room for them on the baseball field. Around 3:30, the time which the tsunami was predicted to hit, people began running to the cliff overlooking the town. I started to walk over and I heard a horrible rumbling and cracking sound, I realized that something was very wrong. So I began running to get a better view, and took out my small digital video camera and began filming.
I could see huge dust clouds and I noticed that buildings were being pushed and carried by the huge surge of water. It was unreal. I distinctly remember seeing a building that was being carried away that was also on fire, cars and homes were thrown about like they weighed nothing. Most of the townspeople stood on the hill near the high school stunned, while others cried.
I then noticed that there were still people trying to get to where we were at higher ground. Below the school, down a flight of steps was a nursing home which the water began to overtake. We soon realized that we couldn’t reach or help these people because the tsunami was upon us and we, more than likely would have been taken as well. As I filmed, a man whose restaurant I frequented rested on me. I was in a sense holding him up as he saw his town destroyed.
As the water began to recede, more people began arriving at the high school. I remember one in particular, she was one of my former students and was crying and wailing loudly. She was wet and people began taking care of her. The townspeople and school staff sprang into action to rescue the remaining elderly who were unable to make it out of the nursing home.
The baseball coach enlisted the help of his team. When I realized what they were doing, I joined in and helped them carry the surviving elderly from the home up the flight of stairs to the school. To add insult to injury, it then began to snow — pretty heavily from what I remember.
The first person I carried up was covered in mud and was shivering. We were piggybacking people, using blankets, and making stretchers out of found plywood. We took the injured and elderly to the nurse’s office, and it then began to sink in how bad the situation was. I strongly remember the metallic smell of blood and as we laid the elderly down. I also remember seeing the blood on the floor.
In a cruel show of force, we received notice that a second
tsunami was on its way. We watched helplessly as it arrived and once again pummeled the town, like someone continuing to beat a man who is already unconscious. The rescue operation continued after the second tsunami withdrew, and some of the elderly people we were carrying were no longer moving. The aftershocks continued and we received several more tsunami warnings, hampering any rescue efforts.
We turned the first floor classrooms into a makeshift emergency room as the injured and elderly were brought in. We began to prepare the school for more people who may be brought in. The judo practice gym was where the majority of townspeople were being placed. It had padded floors which would make it more comfortable for those who had made it to the evacuation center. We opened up the gym and began getting people situated. We tore down the curtains to use as blankets, we gathered heaters and whatever we could think of to try to keep people warm, we took stacks of newspapers from the library so people could use them as blankets — anything that could help. Both electricity and cell service were out, so we were on our own.
Almost everybody was focused and didn’t panic. They kept it together extremely well, given the circumstances. We didn’t have time to think about what had happened, we just went into survival mode as we had people to take care of. This, I think, was what helped most of us cope.
Shizugawa high school is situated on a hill, on the other side of which were homes — including the homes of some of the teachers — so a party set out over the small but densely wooded hill to see if they could get help from any of the people still there. Luckily, there were houses that were high enough on the hill that they were left untouched by the tsunami. People from this neighborhood soon started coming down to the school with onigiri (rice balls), and blankets for the evacuees.
During the course of getting everyone settled, we were tasked with removing from the nurse’s room some of the bodies of the elderly who had passed away. The experience was too traumatic for their frail bodies. We moved their remains to the AV room on the second floor. As night began to fall, some of the teachers, armed with flashlights and sports bags, set out in the dark to see if they could find any food.
The high school staff eventually began to settle for the night in the
first floor office and the adjacent Principal’s office. We divided ourselves up between the two offices and slept in chairs huddled around a space heater. I remember not being able to sleep very well, with the constant aftershocks and the chair not being too comfortable. In the next room an elderly woman kept yelling late in to the night, that it was too cold (Samui!!). The nursing home staff that were there couldn’t really do anything to help her; we were all in the same situation. I thought about my friends and hoped that they were okay.
What was left of the author’s home
Day Two: Coping with Disaster
The second day of the crisis began with a staff meeting, and we were given assignments. The vice principal was the main person in charge of giving out directions. He did a fantastic job of organizing and really kept things together. We were given numbered jerseys, the kind the students wear during sports competitions, to identify us as staff members. Mine didn’t fit.
Some of us were put in charge of spelling out SOS with snow on the baseball field and others gathered up bags of snow to place on the deceased in order to somewhat preserve their remains. It was decided that the deceased were to be moved to the archery team clubhouse, as it was far away from the main campus. I was on the team charged with moving the bodies. We said nothing, and when we laid them down in the clubhouse we all said a silent prayer for them.
Rescue helicopters began arriving and we asked them to take the severely injured first. We used stretchers to carry them to the helicopters and some of the Japanese crewmen stayed behind at the school to make room for the injured.
During the downtime between helicopter landings, I surveyed the damage done to Shizugawa. I went to the bottom of the single driveway that led up to the school and saw that it was completely blocked by debris. Throughout the day, people set out to find food and supplies, and even a human chain was created over the hill to carry supplies from homes that had survived. I ran into one of my good friends, Yusuke, who came to the school because he is an elderly care worker. He had a big bandage over a swollen eye, but other than that, he was okay. I asked about our common friends and he said that he didn’t know of their current condition.
People were by now coming back to the school with food, which was very difficult because of the complete and utter destruction that turned most of the town into a debris field. Helicopters were now landing at the other evacuation areas, which included a hospital, apartment complex, and the junior high and elementary schools I noticed that one of the people who were given a numbered jersey was my former student who made it back to the school — the one who was wailing loudly when she arrived soon after the tsunami. It turns out that her mother had stayed behind to take care of their grandmother in their home. My former student was caught up in the tsunami but managed to pull herself out, but I am afraid her mother and grandmother are gone. She told the staff that she didn’t want to think about it and said that she just wanted to help, so they gave her a jersey and work to do. It was her way of coping.
As it began to get dark on the second night we found some candles and also made others out of oil to use for light. We put them in the hallways and office of the high school. I ventured out to see how the people of the town who sought refuge at the school were doing. They had created fire pits around the baseball diamond and were using them to keep warm as they conversed around these fires. I could see out over a hill or two that a fire raged, illuminating part of the night sky. I once again slept in the Principal’s office, and was able to get a few hours of sleep this night. An elderly man kept calling out for his wife, asking her to come to where he was. He received no response but kept calling out for her anyway. And just like the night before, constant aftershocks.
Day Three: The Crisis Continues
On the third day we were taske d with getting food to some of the other evacuation areas, such as the hospital and a large apartment complex. We had heard that some of our students were staying at this apartment complex and the teachers were eager to see if they were okay. We were given instructions to listen for an alarm coming from the high school. We were told that the vice principal would let us know via megaphone if there was another tsunami warning. One short beep for small tsunami, and a long one for a large tsunami. We could only hope that we would be able to hear these alarms and get to high ground in time.
The P.E. Coach gave me a pair of his sneakers, because he was the only other person who had the same shoe size. I was on the team that was going to the apartments, and I loaded my bag with food and we set out. There was about seven of us, all teachers at the school. We walked down the stairs towards the nursing home, the driveway was completely blocked and proved to be more than difficult to navigate through.
This was my first on the ground look at the damage. Complete destruction. Piles of timber where houses used to stand, cars strewn about. Mud everywhere. We made our way down a makeshift path that people had been using to find supplies. It looked as though the town had turned into a garbage dump, with mountains of debris.
Navigating through the town was difficult but we made it to a bridge that used to go over the train tracks. The bridge was still intact, but you could see where the water had reached. The tsunami had to have been at least 30 feet high. This route was the quickest way to the apartments. It was here that I ran in to the first news reporters, they were from Al Jezeera. My teachers motioned for me to talk to them. They asked me where we were headed and what I knew of what was going on. They asked me for an interview later, and I said that I would probably be back at the school.
We then continued on our way through the mud covered town. I recognized the places where buildings I knew used to stand and I tried to imagine what the town used to look like before the disaster. The apartment complex was a few blocks passed the hospital, and as we approached the we heard the megaphone alarm from the high school go off. A long beep.
We decided to take refuge in the hospital because it was closer than the school. We found an entrance through the back that looked like it had been cleared safe for use. We started to make our way up the stairs. It was then that I smelled that familiar metallic smell, the smell of blood. The hospital wasn’t able to completely evacuate the lower floors of before the tsunami hit, and there were bodies of unfortunate people still strewn about.
We made it up to the top floor of the hospital and took a break. The building was mostly empty, and the remaining medical staff told us that the remaining patients had just been airlifted to safety. They also informed us that the apartment complex, which was our original destination, had also been evacuated. We waited for a bit and no tsunami came. We decided that it was safe and began heading back to the school.
On our retreat to the school the megaphone alarm sounded once again, this time a long beep, longer than the last one. We had not even made it back as far as the bridge, so we double timed it — which wasn’t easy with a bag of food and mud covered ground. We made it to the bridge and from there determined that it seemed safe to continue on back to the school.
Supplies began to come in via military helicopter and I began helping unload them. Blankets, food, and water mostly. I ran into a good friend of mine, who was also a news reporter for the local newspaper. He isn’t a very expressive guy, but when we saw each other he gave out a surprised yell, and we hugged. It was great to see another friend. We began breaking down the wooden stools and chairs that we weren’t using for firewood and the baseball boys and I had a good laugh as they watched me crush the timber with my weight, as I jumped on the boards to break them. Teachers were also dispatched to the other evacuation centers to see if they could find our missing students.
As I took a breather I saw a very familiar face, Canon Purdy, an American teacher who once taught at the junior high school in Shizugawa. She had been staying at my apartment and actually arrived in Shizugawa on the day of the tsunami to attend her former student’s graduation. She dropped her stuff off at my apartment and we split up as she quickly went to the junior high. When I saw here standing at the top of stairs I let out a big sigh of relief, I was so glad that she was okay. She brought news of our good friends who had been staying at the junior high with her. We exchanged stories and news and talked of missing friends. But the other American English teacher in town, Caitlin Churchill, was still unaccounted for.
The Al Jezeera guys then arrived and they interviewed one of my Japanese English teachers and myself. More supplies and food began arriving, some by foot and some by helicopter.
That night I slept a bit better, mainly due to exhaustion.
Day Four: US Military MIA, NBC Arrives
On the fourth day of the crisis our main job was to continue unloading the relief supplies that continued coming in. The roads were clearing up and trucks began getting through. The first couple of days after the earthquake and tsunamis the food supplies were scarily thin, but now there was a constant stream of supplies coming in.
People were coming and going, and one small group of people included miss Caitlin Churchill — she had been staying at a junior high school in the nearby town of Togura and had to walk and hitchhike to get back to Shizugawa high school. She brought news from Togura and also mentioned that the US military may be helping out in the area and she wanted to see if she could get a ride with them back to somewhere with electricity. She was on her way to the junior high in Shizugawa so I joined her. I wanted to see my friends and perhaps offer my services to the US military as a translator. Now that the roads were clearer than the previous days, the trip around town was a bit easier.
At the Junior high I met more friends who had made it through the disaster. Actually, these were more than friends, they were my Japanese family.These good friends include a husband and wife who used to own a cafe/bar that I frequented. The shop was comfy and the coolest and friendliest people congregated there.The husband and wife liked to be called by their nicknames — “Mama and Papa” — which were appropriate due to their caring and parental natures.
We met up with Canon and decided to go to another evacuation center to see if the US military was there. We hiked over the hills behind the junior high and elementary. We ran in to townspeople we knew, it was great seeing their faces. When we came out of the wooded trail on the other side of the hill, we saw how much more destruction the tsunami had caused to the rest of Shizugawa. There was really nothing left of the town. It was a pile of debris. We walked through the wreckage towards the Bayside arena, another makeshift shelter. We continued to meet people we knew and a good friend of ours who lived near the arena gave us a lift the rest of the way. We looked around for people we knew and also asked if the US military was near. They weren’t.
As I rested outside we decided that we should go probably go back to the junior high, but as we began to leave, I noticed a woman with a camera crew run up to Canon and ask if she was Canon Purdy and said that her sister had been trying to get a hold of her from the USA. I stood there as Anne Curry quickly interviewed Canon and then the cameras turned to Caitlin and I so we could get messages out via the NBC Today Show to our families to let them know that we were alive.
Evidently, there had been a search effort by our families to find us, and Canon’s sister had used Twitter to ask Anne if she could help. Anne found her way to Shizugawa Junior high where she showed people a picture of Canon and asked if anybody knew who she was and, if so, where she was. Mama and Papa, my Japanese family, knew, and they escorted the news crew to the Bayside arena where we had trekked earlier in the day.
Anne Curry and the NBC news crew gave us a ride back to the junior high in their truck and provided us with whatever snack food they had. Getting back to the junior high proved to be difficult, as the road back was closed due to flaming debris. So we had to take a more difficult road over the hills. It was surreal. The whole situation was surreal but this ride through the hills overlooking the ruined city just upped the level of strangeness. As we rode back to the junior high, Anne filled us in on what had been happening on the outside. I handed a video that I took of the tsunami to Anne and her NBC crew as well as to NHK. I knew people needed to see what had happened here.
Anne wanted to do an interview with Canon to compliment a piece that NBC did with her family in California, and she also allowed us to use their satellite phone to call our relatives and let them know we were okay. I knew that I wanted to stay as long as I could in Shizugawa to help out, these are people that I love, good people, my friends and family. I told this to my uncle over the phone and he understood.
Day 5: US Embassy No Help at All
I staye d at the Junior high that night and then went back to the high school the next day. More supplies, more trucks, more news reporters. Over the next few days, the school ceased being a school, and became a full time shelter. The staff, having less and less to do, began to go home or to relatives’ houses to see if they were okay. I started staying at the junior high at night, I wanted to stay with my Japanese family, my only family close enough to be with. Phone service had been partially restored by this time, and we were able to contact other teachers and get information about what biggest city in Miyagi, the prefecture where we lived.
Canon then called the US embassy in hopes that they may be of assistance. They weren’t. We asked about getting new passports, as ours were lost in the wreckage, and they told us that we “had to come during regular business hours, Monday through Friday” to apply. Well, the embassy was in Tokyo, far from where we were.
Thanks US embassy, for nothing.
Canon and Caitlin got a ride out of town with the news crew a day or so later and the high school staff began to dwindle. I knew it was now okay for me to leave as well. One of my last days in Shizugawa, amongst other things, I spent time translating into Japanese the English language cooking instructions from the foodstuffs that were brought in on the relief trucks, and I even made a conversion chart for cooking terms and measurements. “What’s a gallon?” I had to explain. I also had to explain what beets were, but I really couldn’t think of any dishes that use them. I also visited my former apartment, there was nothing left, I could barely make out the floor frame, everything was gone. As I walked back to the high school I stopped to inspect the damage along the way, and, in a few places, I could smell the familiar metallic smell that I had come to know so well.
I told the principal that I needed a ride to Sendai. He talked with an Asahi news crew who were filming in the area to see if I could get a ride with them. Luckily, they were headed to Sendai that night. It took about 3 hours to get from Shizugawa to Sendai in the news van. The crew was friendly and cheered me up a bit. The roads were a bit bumpy and construction crews were out in force to fix them. I noticed on this ride that my emotions were beginning to become hard to contain. There were a few times that I became emotional in the prior week — when I found out that friends were safe, when I walked through the destroyed town alone — but I was able to keep it together. The whole situation was unreal.
On the day of my flight back to the USA, it starte d to sink in that I would be leaving Japan, a place that I had called home for three years straight. I had no ill will towards my second home; in fact, I wanted to return as soon as I could to help or comfort those that lost so much, those people who I call friends and family.
Landing at LAX and getting off the plane I was surrounded by commuters who had no idea what I had just gone through, people going about their lives. It was, once again, surreal. I got to the escalator that took me down to baggage claim where people could meet loved ones. My loved ones were at the bottom waiting for me. Their smiling faces were a welcome contrast to the previous weeks. It was great to be in their arms again.
Minamisanriku, or Shizugawa, as locals still continue to call it, was literally claimed by the sea during what has come to be known as the Great East Japan Earthquake. Over half of the city’s population — roughly 9,500 people — did not survive the earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis. Minamisanriku’s staggering death toll comprised a significant portion of the disaster’s total casualties. In the aftermath of the destruction it became apparent that 95% of Minamisanriku was completely destroyed, only the largest buildings — the hospital, the nursing home, a couple apartment complexes — were still standing.
When the tsunamis hit, the valleys that surround the city acted as a large funnel which allowed the water to rise to heights exceeding 50 feet. Almost everything was completely destroyed, and the aerial photos of the aftereffects look like something out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare. As Steve wrote, “There was really nothing left of the town. It was a pile of debris.”
Originally published in Vagabond Explorer Magazine, Vol. 1, Summer 2011.
I’m an itinerant writer who has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I wrote Ghost Cities of China, a book which chronicles the two years that I spent in China’s new cities, and have another book about the New Silk Road coming out soon. I’m a regular contributor to Forbes, The Guardian, and the South China Morning Post, and I have been featured on BBC World, VICE, NPR Morning Edition, CNBC Squawk Box, CBC The Current … This is my personal blog where I share stories from the road that don’t fit in anywhere else. In other words, this is my daily diary, raw and real — it is not edited or even proofread. Subscribe below.