Tsunami boat lifts spirits in Japan: They'd like to have it back

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate April 12, 2013 10:00 pm

Rikuzentakata before and after the tsunami. A boat that washed up in Crescent City came from the school in the background. Photos courtesy Rikuzentakata City Hall
Rikuzentakata before and after the tsunami. A boat that washed up in Crescent City came from the school in the background. Photos courtesy Rikuzentakata City Hall
In Rikuzentakata, a coastal Japanese town where the March 2011 tsunami took the lives of 10 percent of the people and only three buildings constructed before the disaster still stand, everyone has learned to live with loss.

To recover anything lost in the tsunami that surged 50–65 feet high is cause for celebration — even a high school marine science program’s small boat that washed up on South Beach in Crescent City on Sunday.

“Everything that was lost, we just never expected to find again. That something made it across the Pacific and landed practically on your doorstep, is one of those ‘you can’t make this up moments,’” said Amya Miller, the city’s global public relations officer, from Rikuzentakata by telephone Thursday. “Right now everyone is in sort of a giddy state of shock.”

On Wednesday, Miller used photographs of the goose barnacle-covered boat posted to Rikuzentakata city’s Facebook page to identify the boat’s owner: a teacher from Takata High School told Miller that he was positive that the 20-foot-long boat belonged to the school’s marine sciences program. The town of 23,000 people has a strong aquaculture economy, so students learn how to harvest marine life like oysters, clams and seaweed.

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that they have not been able to officially confirm the boat’s origin through the standard protocol of working with the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco, but information from the Facebook approach seemed promising.  

If the seemingly inevitable confirmation comes through, the panga boat will be the first confirmed piece of tsunami debris from the 2011 event to land on California shores.

Some detective work

Lori Dengler, a geologist with Humboldt State University’s Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group, a group of local, state and federal agencies and others that studies tsunami hazards, posted the photos to the city’s social media page after translating the vessel’s handwritten Japanese characters with the help of an HSU librarian. The characters read ‘Takata High School,’ and Dengler also recognized characters for Rikuzentakata, a city that Dengler had visited within weeks after the tsunami.

Dengler had been following Rikuzentataka’s Facebook page for more than a year. After posting the photos, “within two hours (Miller) had tracked down the school and found a teacher that recognized the boat,” Dengler said.

Miller noted that although there is a sense of “giddy joy” from finding the high school’s boat, there are still 200 missing citizens that have not been found on top of more than 2,000 people confirmed dead.

“There’s a notion of ‘where are the bodies?’ and that’s still incredibly traumatic,” she said.

Residents of the Rikuzentakata measure most elements of their lives by ‘shinsai-mae’ (before-disaster) or ‘shinsai-go’ (after-disaster), Miller said.

Eighty percent of Rikuzentakata’s downtown was destroyed by surges that reached the top of three-story buildings; every structure not made of concrete was washed away, and one third of city hall employees died — 129 city employees, including the mayor, survived by spending the night on city hall’s roof, Miller said.

“Pray with us for the souls of those who have lost their precious lives due to the earthquake,” Mayor Futoshi Toba wrote on the city’s website.

Takata High School was still standing after-disaster, but since it was “completely damaged and unusable” it was eventually demolished per the city’s decision to level any building where someone had died (at least one teacher and about 20 students perished in the high school), Miller said. After the tsunami, the school’s activities were relocated to an unused campus 30 minutes from the city, Miller said.

Three buildings that did not experience casualties were left standing as memorials to the disaster. A Google Street View virtual stroll through town shows a barren landscape stripped of all almost structures.

Two years after the destruction, Rikuzentakata’s recovery effort is still hindered by government red tape, said Miller. She, with the rest of her city government colleagues, still operates out of four makeshift, pre-fabricated temporary buildings. In the summertime, much of the city looks like a prairie with tall grass and weeds hiding the concrete foundations that remain. The city was just able to break ground on rebuilding a fire station six weeks ago.

The hurdle has been acquiring permits for razing damaged properties and either rebuilding on them or  cutting trees farther from the coast and building there, Miller said.

‘Life is very bittersweet’

Still, small rays of hope, like a recovered high school boat, bring the city’s residents comfort.

“Life is very bittersweet right now in Rikuzentakata; life is also incredibly intense. There are moments of grief and trauma that people here carry with them, and there are moments of joy and happiness, but I would say that stories such as this are fuel for us; they’re sustenance,” Miller said. “We need happy stories right now desperately.”

This is the second happy story, as a soccer ball found on an Alaska island with a student’s name in Japanese characters was traced to Rikuzentakata as well.

Adding to the amazement of the boat’s more than 5,000-mile journey is the landing location, less than a mile from a multi-million-dollar project to repair damage done to Crescent City Harbor from a tsunami resulting from the same March 2011 earthquake.

“It’s ironic; it’s beautiful; its tragic; it’s all of these different emotions that are just sort of swirling,” said Miller, who was unaware of Crescent City’s tsunami story.

Although Miller was born and raised in Japan, she is a U.S. citizen born to American parents, and had lived in Boston for 17 years before the 2011 tsunami rocked her nation of origin, encouraging her to volunteer for the recovery effort in Japan.

When her volunteer organization left Rikuzentakata, she stayed, becoming the city’s “global public relations director,” a new position created to deal with donations, press inquiries and volunteer efforts.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most meaningful job I’ve ever had,” she said, adding that her husband and son still reside in the U.S.

Can it be returned?

Describing the 2011 tsunami that was higher than the city’s evacuation points for “more normal tsunamis,” Mill said, “this was truly horrific and this is why this boat is like the heavens opened up and the sun is shining; this is a story of real beauty.”

Takata High School would like to have the boat back, and Miller said that the people of Rikuzentakata are grateful to the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office for preventing the boat from being salvaged by the people who first tried to haul it off of South Beach on Sunday night.

“Having it back I know would be incredibly meaningful only because the school lost so much — the city lost so much,” Miller said. “If the boat does come back, it would be lovely to have representatives from the Sheriff’s Office, NOAA and HSU bring it back with them,” Miller said.

Cindy Henderson, of Del Norte County’s Office Emergency Services, has been reaching out to people to figure out the logistics.

“There are a lot of empty ships going back across the Pacific, so why not?” Henderson said.

“It would be an absolute culmination of the ultimate in full circle,” Miller said “That would be something that people would talk about for generations.”

Of almost 1,700 suspected tsunami debris items reported to NOAA, only 26 have been affirmatively traced to the Japan tsunami.

NOAA officials ask that anyone who finds suspected tsunami debris report it to: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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