Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

Information presented during a moving presentation by Rikuzentakata’s Fire Chief last week will be used to refine Crescent City’s strategies for tsunami evacuation and response.

Amya Miller asked the class to be respectful of how traumatic the video was for him to watch, but that he wanted to show it to the delegation to illustrate its importance.

Fire Chief Katsumi Watanabe, 61, worked at the Rikuzentakata department for years before the tsunami, and now works in forestry in the region. Of local fire departments, his lost the largest number of fire personnel.

Watanabe said a meeting between fire administrators and firefighters took place weeks before the tsunami, to ensure all were on the same page with tsunami planning.

“The height of tsunami we were preparing for at this time was approximately 1.5 to three feet,” he said. “What actually arrived was 45 feet.”

The firehouse was a 31-year-old building which was not considered earthquake proof, he said.

Watanabe showed a video, taken from the firehouse, in which the water rose to the roof in about 12 seconds.

“At this point, we decided we needed to evacuate,” he said. “We first went to the third floor, then we started climbing on the steel structure on the roof.”

Watanabe showed a video, taken by a firefighter, of the water coming up to the rooftop below them. In the audio, loud panicked yelling in Japanese could be heard, to which Watanabe explained, “He thought he was going to die.”

Watanabe showed photos of the coastal pine forest between Rikuzentakata and the ocean, which was about a mile long and had 70,000 trees before the tsunami. The forest, along with Rikuzentakata’s famous white sand beach, were wiped out.

Of those trees only one remained standing after the tsunami. It has come to stand as a symbol of hope and strength for the city and has become its icon.

Watanabe said the tsunami leveled the pine forest and carried some of the trees eight miles up the river to the Yokata Region. A photo showed one of the pine trees, with its root system still intact, jammed into the window of a third floor hotel room downtown.

Showing a photo of City Hall, Watanabe said seawater reached the third floor and people took refuge on the roof. Showing photos of a destroyed school gymnasium, Watanabe noted that it was a designated tsunami evacuation site. The hospital was also destroyed. He said 126 people evacuated to the roof and survived but people in the hospital were lost. The city’s civic center, also a designated evacuation center, was also destroyed.

“Approximately 130 to 170 people were said to have evacuated to here but only five or six remained,” he said. Another 10 people were rescued from the roof of a supermarket by helicopter.

Asked about a distant fire visible in a video of the receding water, Watanabe estimated it was a hybrid car or a propane tank. He explained that people used private propane tanks, since the city has no underground lines, and that many tanks exploded.

“Even while we were actively working, we were smelling a lot of gas in the air,” Watanabe said, “and the firefighters who were up here, as they’re watching the receding wave, they were hearing people screaming ‘Help me, help me’ and there’s now survivor guilt for not being able to do anything for the people who were being swept out.”

Across the river, another fire burned in a middle school.

Immediately following the tsunami, Takata Middle School’s gymnasium became a temporary morgue, but quickly filled, forcing personnel to find other locations to store and identify bodies.

Meanwhile, firefighters were also combing evacuation centers looking for their own family members.

Two reasons

Watanabe said there were two main reasons his department lost 51 firefighters; One was that there were no rules in place that they save themselves first, and many were closing the gate to the river, even as the tsunami approached. However, he added he agrees with another fire official who told reporters, “As long as we wear this uniform, it’s not like we can escape ahead of the residents.”

He said the second reason was that no one expected waves taller than what they’d seen in the 1960 Chile Quake.

“This was a nine-foot wave that was caused by an earthquake off the coast of Chile,” he said. “This was not just an assumption held by us firefighters, it was the assumption held by all of us in town that there would be no greater earthquake than we had in 1960 and nothing higher than nine feet would ever come. Because of that assumption, there was a delay among firefighters in helping people escape. There was action by firefighters that put them into an area where they couldn’t escape.”

He said after the disaster, new rules and protocols were established to save fire personnel in such an emergency.

“The rule states that firefighters are to have escaped to high ground 10 minutes before the anticipated arrival of the tsunami,” he said. “They’ll be able to be of use long-term as they evacuate and keep themselves safe. It’s one thing for our firefighters to know this but we actually need our citizens to know this.”

That said, Watanabe asked the philosophical question of whether firefighters will choose to leave people who can’t or won’t evacuate in order to get themselves to safety.

“I don’t know that they will be able to and I know that I won’t be able to,” he said.

Recovery, help

His department also ended up with the responsibility of clearing roads with heavy equipment, in order to allow other emergency personnel to access the area once waters had receded. Since Rikuzentakata Fire Department’s station was destroyed, fire personnel had to borrow equipment and even uniforms from other departments. More than 3,700 firefighters from other departments came to Rikuzentakata to help, he said.

Watanabe showed a photo of his department, clad in various donated fire jackets of multiple colors, waving goodbye to other departing firefighters who had come to the aid of Rikuzentakata.

Local protocols

Locally, fire personnel are instructed to pull back to a safe zone in the event of a tsunami and respond afterward, rather than possibly become casualties themselves. Crescent City Manager Eric Wier, also a firefighter and former public works director, said the protocol to keep firefighters out of danger was a lesson learned from the 2006 tsunami. At the time, first responders went into the inundation zone to evacuate certain areas. Wier compared it to the actions of Rikuzentakata firefighters who stayed, trying hopelessly to close the sea gate.

He said that in the case of a distant tsunami with an expected arrival time, the protocol is similar to that of Rikuzentakata. He said firefighters will continue to evacuate low areas until a specified time before the expected arrival and then move to higher ground.

Noting recent training by county staff in Emmitsburg, Maryland, Wier gave a lot of credit to Emergency Services Manager Cindy Henderson, County CAO Jay Sarina, and the office of emergency services, for the extensive training and planning that has taken place.

Wier said trainers in Emmitsburg were amazed at the level of preparedness in Crescent City. However, after hearing Watanabe speak about his department’s experiences, Wier said more could be done, even though the city has a great plan in place.

He stressed the need for the community to understand and accept they will be responsible for their own evacuation during a tsunami warning or following a quake.

Also attending the training in Japan were City Councilor and CCFR Battalion Chief Darrin Short and Sheriff’s Commander Bill Steven, also a firefighter. Wier said they have been talking to division chiefs about what they saw. “Now we can take all this information to Cindy Henderson and use it to make the best plan possible,” he said.

Sidebar information:

The population of Rikuzentakata was 24,000 before the tsunami and1,557 lives were lost. As many as 202 people are still considered missing.

In Rikuzentakata, 51 firefighters died. The disaster reduced the department from 750 to 650 firefighters through death, injury and other reasons. In the region, 252 lost their lives and Rikuzentakata accounted for a fifth of the firefighters lost.

The highest measured height of the wave was 18.3 meters (60.03 feet) and the land dropped 84 centimeters (1.7 feet)

The quake measured 9.0 on the Richter scale.