At 2:46pm on Friday, March 11, 2011, a devastating earthquake occurred off the coast of northeastern Japan. The
magnitude 9.0 earthquake resulted in a major tsunami that swallowed up entire towns and swept thousands of people away from their homes and loved ones.
The earthquake also caused damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, resulting in a second-worst nuclear accident ever (after Chernobyl). Over 200,000 people have been evacuated from the area, many with little to no warning, and in large areas, whether they can ever return remains unclear.
As of December, 2011, 15,841 people have been confirmed dead, with an additional 3,490 people still missing. More than 125,000 buildings were destroyed, and many of the towns and cities have not yet recovered from the utter devastation. Even houses and buildings that were not completely submerged or washed away suffered from severe structural damage. Many people continue to live in temporary housing, unable to find steady jobs in the wake of the disaster.
Some photographs from the affected areas:
The Big Picture
Some pictures of Kesennuma days after the earthquake, taken by Aya and Kumiko
The Kumagai family's story
Below is a story from Aya, a 29-year-old English teacher who was living in Kesennuma when the earthquake hit. She lived with her younger brother Yusuke (27), her parents Kaoru (61) and Miyoko (62), and her grandparents Tsutome (87) and Haruko (86). In Kesennuma, the magnitude of the earthquake was 6.
Since the earthquake, Aya, her brother, and her mother have been living in Ichinoseki, about 30 miles west of Kesennuma. Because of his employment situation, her father lives in Orikabe, about 20 minutes by car. Her grandfather is in the hospital, and her grandmother is living near Tokyo with her daughter's family.
It remains unclear whether the Kumagai family will return to Kesennuma.
On March 11, my grandparents, my parents, and my younger brother were all at home. My parents were off from work that day, and my brother had come home for a lunch break.
As soon as they put lunch on the table, they felt a strong quake, as though they were being shoved from below. It immediately changed to a violent sideways shaking. They weren't able to move at all and hung on to walls and pillars until the earth stopped moving.
"This isn't like the usual earthquakes. There's a tsunami coming!" my father said, rushed everybody out to the cars. My parents and my brother took the dog and cat, as well as a small bag with their wallets. The car had some drinking water stored in it due to a tsunami warning that had been issued two days earlier, after another earthquake. They thought it highly unlikely that the tsunami would come up to the second floor, and planned to return home when the water receded.
My grandparents went with our neighbours to a nearby community center (the designated evacuation meeting place), and my parents and brother went to Mt. Anba nearby.
As soon as my grandparents had reached the second floor of the community center, and my parents and brother had headed for the mountain, the tsunami came. My grandmother looked outside as the tsunami rushed in, and saw a woman holding on to her car as the waves rushed in. Although people were watching from the second floor, all they could say was "Hold on!" and watch as she almost immediately disappeared into the waves.
As the water climbed higher and higher, my grandparents climbed to the third floor, and eventually, to the roof. After a while, the oil that had spilled from the fuel tanks ignited and the area around the community center became a sea of fire. At times, they could hear small explosions nearby.
My parents and brother watched from Mt. Anba as the waves swallowed the town. As the fuel tank became dislodged, they could see the waves, now on fire, attacking. There were many people who had evacuated to the mountain, and as they watched their homes being destroyed, my parents found it surprising that nobody was panicking or screaming. "This is the end," said one old man, quietly to himself.
The next morning, my grandparents, who didn't sleep at all that night, walked to a junior high school about half a mile away on foot. Everything they saw had been utterly destroyed. Once they got to the junior high school, they were provided with blankets and food, and they were able to spend the next two weeks there. My parents and my brother stayed overnight at a relative's house, close to Mt. Anba, and then stayed with my mother's parents.
When the earthquake hit, I happened to be in Ichinoseki, about 30 miles west of Kesennuma (the magnitude there was also 6). I immediately tried to contact my family after the earthquake, but I couldn't get through at all. About an hour after the earthquake, I got a text from my brother saying that everybody had been safely evacuated, and I was finally somewhat relieved. That night, I slept with a blanket in my friend's car. At first, I listened to the radio in the car, but then I remembered that I could watch TV on my cell phone, and turned that on. Immediately, I saw the headline "Kesennuma on fire!" and the footage from helicopters flying overhead was being streamed. Because the scale of the fire was so large, I didn't think it possible that any of my family members had survived, but I got a call from one of my cousins in Hyogo that everybody was alright. While I was relieved to hear this news, I couldn't sleep at all that night because of the aftershocks, occurring every few minutes, and the cold.
A week later, my father, who works as a cab driver, came to Ichinoseki to fill up his gas tank. I went home to Kesennuma with him.
We stayed with my mother's parents until the beginning of April, and after that, we moved to temporary housing in Ichinoseki. We stayed there for 3 months, and we have now moved to a different area of Ichinoseki.
Kumiko Goto, on life in Kesennuma now
How has the disaster affected your children?
It was the high schoolers who worked really hard to help the town recover after the earthquake. The day after, my son went with his friends to attempt to look for some things that had been swept away, and they were able to save some lives as they went around the town. The high school students helped out a lot at the evacuation centers as well, often playing key organizational and leadership roles. They volunteered to do the tough sewage clean up work and hard labor, and many people found their energy comforting.
It seemed like the children, rather than us adults, were doing a better job of understanding the situation and remaining calm.
What is Kesennuma like now? Are you able to get all the things (groceries, clothes) you need there?
Kesennuma is starting to recover - at least in the central areas. Stores that were in the most heavily damaged areas of Kesennuma have relocated to temporary buildings, and the supermarket re-opened last fall. We can buy things on line, too, so we don't want for much.
However, all of the cultural and recreational areas - the two karaoke stores, the bowling alley, and the swimming school - have been destroyed, and the minshuku (smaller, Japanese style inns and hotels) are all gone as well. The hotels are always full. These aren't immediate necessities so I doubt they'll recover soon, but I do hope that they come back.
How has your life changed since March 11, 2011? How has the disaster affected you?
Of course, much has changed since then. I've come to realize that we can't take anything for granted.
There's water when you turn the faucet. The lights come on when you flip the switch. You can buy anything at the supermarket. These things, which we do every day without thinking about it, are now things for which I'm grateful.
I was also surprised at the amount of water we were using each day without stopping to think about it. Going to the bathroom, taking a bath or shower, laundry, and above all, washing the dishes. I went to a nearby school every day for a month to get water. I had happened to fill up my car with gas a few days before the earthquake, so we were able to take the car every day to get some water in a few buckets and bottles - but almost half would be used for just doing the dishes.
Many old people living alone in our neighbourhood don't drive, and they often walked the hilly streets with heavy buckets and bottles.
I also realized the strength of human connections. Friends I'd lost touch with contacted me, and those from outside the prefecture were really worried about us.
Immediately after the earthquake, all I could focus on was living and surviving. As our lives have slowly recovered, there are additional worries and fears. Everybody in my family was safe, and even our car survived - we were extremely fortunate. And yet, indescribable anxiety and depression attacked us all, and we were mentally exhausted. But I tried not to carry it all myself, and talked often with others. I spent time with as many friends as I could.
Many people have helped us, in many different ways - and that is how we've come to be where we are today.
My family and I were lucky - we are all safe, and we didn't lose much. We've returned to almost-normal lives, but there are many around us who are struggling to survive. I'd like to share our story with others.