The 15 delegates of Crescent City and Del Norte County have been going non-stop since their arrival in Rikuzentakata, Japan on Monday, transiting to several locations daily to see and hear the stories, experiences and future plans of the people of Rikuzentakata.
While the days have ended with dinners of Japanese food and merriment, the exhaustingly long days are educational, inspiring and sometimes solemn and shocking.
On Tuesday, one such classroom experience forced the delegation to take a sobering look at the reality of disaster aftermath.
It started with instructor Amya Miller telling the group, “I’m not your friend today.”
The group quickly came to realize what she meant when she pragmatically tore down assumptions of preparedness, including that when an emergency happens, all emergency personnel would be in good health and have access to all their typical resources.
After randomly counting around the room, she would say things like “You can’t help that person, you have a compound fracture,” or “you can’t just call, you don’t have cell service anymore,” and even “you can’t do anything, you’re dead.”
Exercises highlighted the reality, by placing delegates in the position of making decisions in limited time while surrounded by chaos. Access issues, communication, personal and authority issues in chaotic situations complicated the exercises, making a positive outcome seem almost impossible, at times.
Among those decisions was whether to stay and help one’s family or the general public. Hitting them with rapid fire questions and scenarios, Miller broke down how basic human assumptions can lead to calamitous decisions that may end with a loss of life.
In one scenario, the decision to spend time looking for a pet ran the clock out when it came to survival.
A debate between Mayor Blake Inscore and City Manager Eric Wier escalated to the point of almost yelling when it came to the subject of Crescent City’s current evacuation center, Crescent Elk Middle School on 9th and G streets. While Wier argued data drives his sentiment the school is the safest option, Inscore returned to the notion that Rikuzentakata also thought it was safe and had a plan in place.
The fire chief on the ground when the earthquake and tsunami hit said he and his crew were quickly forced to the rooftop of the fire station. He showed a video taken by one of the firefighters, which showed debris-filled water quickly rising to reach the roof as firefighters yelled out in horror when they feared they were about to die.
When the rising water approached to roof’s edge, the fire crew climbed onto a metal tower on the roof and waited. They survived, but found themselves cut off from help, their station destroyed and useless.
He said one such mistake in planning for an emergency was the idea they would know how far the wave of ocean water would reach into Rikuzentakata. He said most emergency drills and planning were done with the assumption they would face a wave no taller than about a meter. The wave that hit Rikuzentakata on March 11, 2011 was more than 45 feet.
When the waves receded, schools and other remaining buildings quickly became makeshift morgues, with another being chosen when the previous filled up.
The fire chief explained the hardest part about identifying bodies was having to look at their faces.
Miller explained “survivor guilt,” which occurs when someone’s split-second decision results in the loss of a loved one. The damage to one’s psyche lasts a lifetime and affects them forever as they relive the pain and self blame of feeling like their decision was the cause of that loss.
Of the 24,000 people in Rikuzentakata, 1,550 were confirmed dead and 207 remain missing. Some 3,800 houses were destroyed and another 236 were damaged, according to a report prepared by the city.
“The casualty rate was the largest among the 37 municipalities bordered by the ocean in the three tsunami-affected prefectures,” the report said.
Using a breakdown of survey information from those affected, the data seemed clear to Rikuzentakata officials.
“These results clearly show that evacuation is more important than anything else in protecting human lives,” the report says. “Even after having evacuated to a primary evacuation shelter, evacuees must remain careful about tsunami waves that repeatedly come and go and be always prepared to to to evacuate to higher grounds without sticking to past experiences.”
On the bus riding through Rikuzentakata, Senior Executive Advisor Kiyoshi Murakami served as a tour guide, speaking to the delegates on the intercom. His most uttered phrase over several days of transit was, “and this area you see here was completely destroyed.”
From agriculture to fishing to redevelopment, the delegation visited many sites and spoke to many officials. Back on the bus, the conversations continued as they mulled things like emergency water, food storage, power generation, emergency radio communication, and countless other aspects of emergency response and preparation.