Disasters & Accidents

Lessons from the school that saved 320 people from the tsunami

Antonio Hermosín Gandul

Sendai, Japan, Mar 6 (efe-epa).- The Arahama school in northeastern Japan served as a refuge to save the lives of 320 students, teachers and others from the tsunami that swept through the area in 2011. Today the building honors the victims and pays tribute to the school’s exemplary response to such a major catastrophe.

Led by school officials, the students ran up the stairs to the roof of the four-story waterfront building after hearing the tsunami warning following the huge 9.1-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Sendai on that fateful day nearly 10 years ago.

The monstrous Pacific wave engulfed hundreds of homes on the Arahama coastline and reached the second floor of the school building. But its occupants were safe on the rooftop, sparing them the fate of the more than 18,000 dead and missing left by the tragedy on Japan’s northeastern coast.

“It was like a huge black wall rushing towards us,” recalls Chikako Shouji, a local resident whose home, which was located between the school and the shore, was completely washed away.

Shouji narrowly escaped the tsunami after picking up her mother from her home and driving inland. She now volunteers at the old school in Arahama, which has been preserved by local authorities as a natural disaster education center.

“Many locals decided not to evacuate after the earthquake, because throughout history many (disasters) have affected this area but never in generations did we see such a terrible tsunami. All those who stayed behind died,” she tells Efe.

Some went to the school, one of the strongest and tallest buildings in this beachfront neighborhood.

There they joined students who were ordered to take shelter on the roof by the school principal, Takao Kawamura.

“The only thing we could do from up there was wait and watch as the sea swept the entire neighborhood away,” Kawamura says in a message that is enshrined at the school.

The evacuees stayed on the roof of the school until 27 hours after the disaster, using curtains, cardboard and blankets to protect themselves from the cold, as well as feeding themselves with provisions the school kept for such situations before the Japanese army came to rescue them.

The Arahama school reviewed its natural disaster emergency protocols shortly after the strong earthquake in Chile in 2010, which also caused a tsunami.

Specifically, school officials decided to designate the rooftop as an evacuation space in the event of an earthquake due to the risk of a giant wave, instead of the gymnasium, the area that was initially designated for that purpose.

That timely decision, coupled with the quick reaction of the school management — the warning sounded less than ten minutes before the tsunami struck — saved the lives of all the students and other evacuees.

The school still shows the marks of how high the water reached, as well as a clock located in the gymnasium that was stopped at 15:55, the exact time the tsunami hit the building. EFE-EPA


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