Tsunami or Meltdown – both ruined lives in Fukushima

Yesterday marked 10 years since the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.

Today, we will look at two schools – one that was hit by the tsunami and is in the evacuated zone – and one that sits in the evacuation zone but survived the earthquake.

When the tsunami warning was issued, Ukedo Elementary School had only 40 minutes to evacuate 82 students and 14 teachers., the school is just 200 metres away from the coast and Pacific Ocean – directly in the path of the fast approaching tsunami.

They relocated to a refuge which was 2km away, on the high ground of a nearby hill. A truck driver later arrived to help them. He loaded the staff and pupils into his cargo hold and as a result of his actions, everyone from the school was successfully evacuated to Namie Town Hall before the tsunami hit. They stood in safety as water destroyed the landscape.

Many of the children lost their families in the tsunami, but because of the brave and intelligent actions of the staff at Ukedo Elementary, not one child or staff member from the school died in the disaster. The following day, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant exploded and the town of Namie began its evacuation.

It is claimed that protocol in this situation, was for everyone to remain inside the school. Schools in Japan are earthquake-proof, and often designated evacuation muster points. If this was indeed the protocol, then whoever decided to ignore this instruction is arguably responsible for saving the lives of over 100 people. If the staff and pupils had remained inside the school, it is certain there would have been many fatalities. The immense tsunami inundated the school would have been a death sentence. Thankfully, the swift decision to escape to the nearby hill meant that everyone survived, Moreover, everyone was uninjured which is nothing short of a miracle.

In the village of Kamaya, near the Kitakami River, a concrete shell is all that remains of what used to be Ookawa Elementary School. In this school, nobody made the decision to head for higher ground. As a result, 74 children and 10 teachers died when the waves struck, alongside worried locals who had headed to the school for protection, as it was a designated disaster evacuation site.

Fukushima is moving on, as many of the ruined coastal buildings in this region are demolished. However, it is important to remember the past so that we may never forget. While buildings around the school are levelled, the school is being preserved. Work began in the summer of 2020 to stabilise the building and make it safe. Eventually it will become part of a 5,2000 square meter monument park. The centre will include video displays and exhibitions about 2011 natural and nuclear disaster. The blackboard messages left scrawled in the classrooms will be preserved.

The second school we will look at, shown above, was not hit by the tsunami but was in the evacuation zone due to radioactive contamination. There are efforts on-going to clean up public buildings to try and encourage people to move back here, however so far people are reluctant. This school had just started the cleanup, however most of it was exactly as it was left 10 years ago on that fateful day.

Some photos and text in this article are used with thanks to Janine Pendleton.

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