So as to allow people around the world to know of and share in the lessons of the Great East Japan Disaster, Kahoku Shimpo is making public the English translation of its “Wagakoto” series in several installments. The translations were prepared by student volunteers from Boston University and the University of Michigan in cooperation with the staff of the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard.

Part 1: What Happened that Day (3) Nursing Home in Yamada, Iwate / Carrying Heavy Wheelchairs, Time Slips By

As the tsunami drew closer, nursing home rushed the residents in wheelchairs to high ground in relay form (Illustration: Michino Kuriki)
Cars and debris were hurled by the tsunami and carried onto Seaside Karo nursing home = May 13, 2011, Funakoshi, Yamada Town, Iwate Prefecture
Dr. Toru Kano

◎ Seeking higher ground, not enough manpower

After a welfare facility was caught in the tsunami, its limited staff had to transport residents out of the building. After the “Seaside Karo” nursing home in Yamada Town, Iwate Prefecture evacuated, they headed towards safety on higher ground. However, there were not enough people or time to transport all 96 residents.

The “value of life” weighed on her entire body.

Chief caretaker Kahoru Sasa (55) pushed the wheelchairs with all her might. From the open lot of the first evacuation site, she pressed continuously uphill to the second site at the Yamada Town Ocean Center.

In the open lot, elderly residents she affectionately calls “grandpa” and “grandma” wait their turn. The slope is difficult to push up with a woman’s strength. The wheelchairs are heavy. Time is steadily slipping away.

She hears the sound of waves behind her. Almost simultaneously, her feet are swept out from under her by cold water.

“A tsunami is coming.”

With the long, large, tremor, all 48 staff members braced themselves. They moved the elderly from beds onto wheelchairs, and carried the bedridden residents to the second floor. Even staff members who were not scheduled to work that day rushed to the facility to help.

Seaside Karo was built in 1990 by Katsuo Kondo, late father of the managing company chief director and medical doctor, Akihiro Kondo (52). Overlooking the beach, the facility felt just like home for those who had made their living at the ocean.

The building was made of reinforced concrete, and stood three stories tall in some areas. The emergency door opened to an elevated slope protruding from the second floor, leading to the vacant lot of the evacuation site. It was a lifeline for elderly patients unable to escape on their own.

On that day, the automated emergency doors did not open. It would be laborious to carry out the beds and wheelchairs from the adjacent door, raised 10 centimeters.

The facility stood above the waterline of the Showa Sanriku Tsunami (1933). The town hazard map had indicated that the tsunami would not reach the second floor, located seven meters above sea level.

Sasa briefly considered the facility to be safe, but decided with the staff, “In case of an emergency, we should be ready to carry them out to the Ocean Center (secondary evacuation site).” They laid a plywood board over the doorstep.

The staff divided into three groups of a dozen or so each, responsible for the “facility,” “evacuation site,” and “hill,” and rushed to transport the residents.

“Hurry, get them out!” They encouraged each other while carrying the elderly out of the facility. The next group of staff received them at the evacuation site. Beds and wheelchairs lined up in the open lot.

There was still no sign of a massive tsunami. However, just to be absolutely safe, they set their sights on the Ocean Center, around seven meters above the lot. The Center was the town’s designated evacuation site. The staff pushed wheelchairs over 30 meters of level ground, and began the 100 meter climb uphill. They then ran down and pushed all over again.

“Carry them higher, hurry!” Suddenly, a desperate voice rang out. The tsunami was approaching.  

3:25 p.m., approximately 40 minutes after the earthquake. A muddy torrent of water swept over the facility and the first evacuation site.

Sasa was overtaken by the tsunami, midway up the hill. “I’m going to be swept away,” she thought, but a nearby man reached out to pull her up with the wheelchair.

After the main shock, the 47 outpatients able to evacuate on their own were sent by bus to the Ocean Center. The desperate relay to transport 22 residents saved their lives.

On the other hand, the victim count at the facility reached 74 residents and 14 staff members. With only their manpower alone, there was a limit to what the staff could do for the elderly that required assistance.

◎ The limits of “Tendenko” / Little help for vulnerable evacuees

To the immediate north of Seaside Karo stood “Hamanasu Gakuen,” accommodating those with severe intellectual disabilities. Their procedures were to evacuate to the Yamada Town Ocean Center on foot if a tsunami was approaching.

However, the large quake upset the residents, and it looked like escape by foot would be difficult. 15 staff members placed a total of 41 residents and outpatients on the bus, which carried them to the Center.

The staff members who remained at the facility began walking toward the Ocean Center. On the way there, they caught sight of the nursing home staff rushing around frantically at their evacuation site.

The staff was carrying the elderly in wheelchairs and beds to the evacuation site, using the elevated slope.

“Help us!” they called out. Around five staff of Hamanasu pushed beds and wheelchairs uphill towards the Ocean Center.

Only a moment later, the tsunami rushed up the hill. One staff of Hamanasu was swept by the wave during their second trip to push a resident in a wheelchair. Another staff member was carried away by the tsunami and drifted for a while, but narrowly escaped.

The staff of Hamanasu spoke in voices tinged with regret. “We had to protect our confused handicapped charges as well, and were only able to provide limited and insufficient support.”

During the community disaster prevention training every September, local residents routinely rehearsed walking to the evacuation site at the Ocean Center.

After the main shock, there were few people besides the staff of Hamanasu who were able to help the “secondary evacuation” of the nursing home residents. The townspeople had independently decided to evacuate to a different location on high ground, rather than the Ocean Center.

Aiko Chiba (81) ran a guesthouse in the local area. After seeing her guests off for the day, she looked to Yamada Bay and saw a wave measuring around two meters approaching land. “Look out!” She turned towards the voice, and saw a wall of water advancing from the direction of Funakoshi Bay behind her.

She scrambled up a nearby hill, still in her sandals. With a boom, the tsunami from Funakoshi Bay collided with the tsunami in Yamada Bay, and she saw a huge pillar of water shoot into the sky. Immediately afterwards, the town was submerged under muddy water. 

Around 30 residents were packed together on the hill where Chiba had escaped. In order to head to the Ocean Center from town, it was necessary to take a coastal road. One resident explained, “We were afraid of the tsunami and could not get to the Center.”

The townspeople and nursing home had ended up taking different evacuation routes.

“Tsunami tendenko,” an expression in the Tohoku dialect that encourages prioritizing one’s own life during escape, became known throughout the country as a fundamental principle of evacuation after an earthquake.

But what about those who cannot evacuate on their own? “Tendenko” does not provide an answer for everyone.

◎Community cooperation essential: Always continue to build relations / Dr. Toru Kano, Professor at Iwate Prefectural University (Architectural Planning)

The locations of many welfare facilities with casualties from the Great East Japan Earthquake were chosen based on official tsunami hazard maps, or previous experience with tsunamis. The facilities may have thought their own locations to be fine. The regret of the staff, who could not complete evacuation from the unexpected tsunami, is immeasurable.

The ratio of welfare facility workers to patients is approximately “1 to 3.” This means that each staff is responsible for evacuating three patients who are unable to evacuate on their own.

Those who are bedridden or have dementia require even more assistance. The loss of time and tsunami risk is severe in cases such as Seaside Karo nursing home, where staff carried one patient at a time from the facility to higher ground.

Facilities that find it geographically difficult to prepare escape routes should preemptively develop relations with local residents, and ask them to assist with evacuation. If residents escape along the same evacuation routes, they could push a wheelchair, or take the elderly by the hand.

For the safety of the residents, cooperation is only necessary when there is time to spare until the tsunami arrives. I would also like people to decide not to return to low-lying areas after guiding others to higher ground. If the community cooperates to save as many people as possible in the limited time, they could respond to the strong desire of the facility staff to “save everyone.”

During the disaster, welfare facilities were relied on as “special care shelters” that would accept those with special needs living under evacuee conditions. The opportunity to build collaboration between the community and facilities grows.

How about regularly holding public consultation times at these facilities, open to the elderly in the community? In addition, storing emergency rations for local residents and promising to provide an emergency power supply would lead to the ready support of the community during disasters.

January 5, 2013 (Sat.)
Translated by Jenna Moriwaki