Miyagi prefecture and the City of Sendai doesn’t exactly leap to the top of one’s vacation travel plans even for some Japanese people, but after seeing the area first-hand, you’d be wise to consider it. Surrounded by lush forests, and the endless waves of the Pacific lapping at the flat narrow coastal marshlands, Sendai has always been known for its rich natural resources ever since it’s founding in 1607 by the powerful daimyo Date Masamune. However historical documents and markers from even before that time warned about a great cataclysmic wave that would wash away the lands every few hundred years or so.
On March 11, 2011, those foreshadowing tales came to pass as the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake belted out a magnitude 9.0 earthquake at 2:46pm that day. Centered about 200km due east in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the powerful jolt shook Sendai to it’s foundation. The almost two minute long shaker caused landslides in the many rural mountainous areas along with minor road and building damage in-town, but just as Sendai’s residents thought they were in the clear, tsunami sirens went off all over the coastal areas of Wakabayashi and Miyagino wards. Arahama-cho, a district that sits just 200 meters the ocean was one such vulnerable place.
The area had about 2,700 homes, shops and businesses all situated along a flood canal and a small road. Most buildings were small wood family homes and a few shops while the one building that was made of reinforced concrete and steel beams was the primary school building. Today, that school is the only building left standing. On the day of the tragedy, all of the district’s school children were in the building practicing for their graduation and closing ceremonies to be held a few days later. Thanks to that, all the children in the area survived. Other area residents took up refuge in the school, arriving shortly before the water came rushing in.
In Japan, most civic buildings are designed to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis and even nuclear blasts because they are expected to become evacuation shelters in the event of any of these scenarios. Arahama Elementary School proved it’s worth, taking the brunt of waters that crashed through its first and second floors, bringing all kinds of debris such as other buildings and vehicles with it. The survivors rode out the calamity on the rooftop and many were eventually rescued via helicopter, while the rest were able to escape from the ground once the waters subsided.
Just a few kilometers to the north in the city’s coastal Miyagino ward, the water treatment plant also was inundated and left shut down after the tsunami. The buildings themselves proved their resilience as they never collapsed and protected all 100+ workers at the facility that day, but most of the machinery was damaged beyond repair. Normally this would have been a serious issue for the city itself as all sewage would have backed up into the streets rendering Sendai a stinky mess, however the design of the facility was based on gravity creating an emergency path for water to dump directly into the ocean if the power was ever cut, and workers were able to manually treat and dump sewage as soon as waters subsided. Work is currently underway to upgrade the plant by raising it onto a platform in order to withstand the next mega-wave.
The city’s Emergency Response Department isn’t resting on it’s laurels either; they’ve gone ahead and constructed 13 tsunami evacuation towers in the flatlands of the coastal areas. Designed to accommodate 300 people escaping high waters, they are stocked with food, emergency radios, sleeping bags and heaters. The city expects it would only need to handle that kind of crowd for only a day, and would be able to rescue trapped citizens after waters subside. When not serving emergency duties, the towers will host evacuation drills and live-saving technical classes for local residents to get prepared for when the time comes. All 13 of the towers will be completed by the end of 2017.
Finally, for those who want to learn more about how Sendai and the rest of Miyagi prefecture is rebounding from 3/11, the brand new 3/11 Memorial Center is a good place to find a wealth of information. Recently opened as part of the Arai Station complex on the brand new Tozai subway line, the facility serves both as a an museum and educational center. On the first floor there is an interactive map of the city on the wall where by using an app on your smart-phone, you can access a multimedia presentation of the goings-on of that area. The second floor plays host to a permanent and rotating exhibits of items, photos, and stories from the victims themselves. The center also has classrooms that will be used to educate children from throughout Tohoku on the devastation and preparedness techniques.