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 (2) Ishinomaki Central Highway / Immobile Rows of Traffic Caught in Muddy Waters

Traffic congestion in Ishinomaki City on March 11
A major traffic congestion occurred on the highway running through central Ishinomaki City. Kusajima swerved into the opposite lane (Illustration: Michino Kuriki)
Disaster victims make their way through the highway, littered with vehicles washed up by the tsunami = March 14, 2011, 10:45 a.m., municipal road in Watanoha, Ishinomaki City (a.k.a Nakamichi Road)
Dr. Naoya Sekiya

◎Overcrowding from evacuation and returning home

During the Great East Japan Earthquake, roads that were regularly prone to traffic congestion were blocked by evacuating vehicles, as well as those driving home out of concern for their families. It became impossible to pass through the highway running through the center of Ishinomaki City.

The seaward side of Hiyoriyama Mountain (56 meters). The prefectural road heading inland from Kadonowaki-cho, Ishinomaki City, was packed with cars throughout the visible distance of 600 meters. Ahead of the curve, the road intersects with National Route 398. Masato Kusajima (53)A, a private tutor, was unable to move his car.

A rumble, followed by several bangs. Kusajima heard the loud noise of something exploding behind him. The blood drained from his face. The tsunami he saw earlier was swallowing houses as it rushed towards him.

He turned the steering wheel at once, swerving into the empty oncoming lane. He continued sounding the car horn, running in the opposite direction for around 200 meters. He turned right on to a byway.

There, Kusajima faced another string of vehicles. The tsunami crossed his mind, and he jumped out of the car. “Run,” he pounded on the car windows as he ran up the slope of Hiyoriyama Mountain.

Nobody followed after him. By the time he looked back, the entire line of vehicles and streets had disappeared into the muddy waters.

Immediately after the earthquake hit, Kusajima drove his car from around Ishinomaki Sensh? University to his home along the sea. “The children may be home.” The traffic signals were dark, and National Route 398 and the highways were already congested.

His second daughter (22) and eldest son (20) were not at the house. He could not find them at the evacuation center, Kadowaki Elementary School, and their cell phones were not connecting.

Immediately after he drove home again, he saw a huge tsunami towering beyond Kaihin Park, around 200 meters away. He hurried inland, but the traffic congestion awaited him just ahead.

His second daughter had evacuated to Hiyoriyama Mountain, and his son was safely at their grandparents’ home in Higashimatsushima City. Kusajima reflects, “I was barely able to escape death, but by unnecessarily using my car, I was also contributing to the traffic congestion.”

11 kilometers. This is the extent of the traffic congestion on National Route 398, running across the center of Ishinomaki City, as determined by the National Police Agency based on witness testimonials.

Hiroyuki Abe (47)D, who works at the Ishinomaki City Seafood Processing Cooperative near the Ishinomaki Fishing Port, witnessed the traffic congestion on the incoming lane of National Route 398 as he drove home to Onagawa Town, Miyagi Prefecture. “The outgoing lane was moving smoothly, but the incoming lane didn’t budge.”

His colleague, Megumi Abe (53)C, headed to her home in Minato Tateishi, Ishinomaki City. She was concerned for her mother-in-law (87), whose legs were weak.

In order to return home, she had to cross over National Route 398, as well as the municipal road (a.k.a Nakamichi Road). She was nervous. Both roads were packed with traffic at this point. She chose a byway, and threaded her way forward. It took her more than 20 minutes, twice the usual time, to move a direct distance of 1.5 km.

As soon as she reached home 15 minutes later, somebody yelled, “The tsunami is coming!” A neighbor carried her mother-in-law on their back, and together they escaped by walking to a slightly elevated area.

After the waves receded, she was at a loss for words. More than 100 cars were stacked two stories high at the parking lot near her house.
Ishinomaki City reported 3713 dead or missing, more than any other disaster-stricken municipality. The number of lives lost when the tsunami hit the rows of cars was not negligible.

◎ Regular traffic congestion on lifeline roads / No conclusive solution at this point

The Honda car navigation system had a detailed recording of the extreme traffic congestion on National Route 398 in Ishinomaki City.

According to GPS information, it took cars in the okaido District 51 minutes and 30 seconds to move 400 meters. This is comparable to the walking speed of a tortoise.

At the time, office worker Shinji Kamiyama (37)@ was driving to Kama Elementary School to pick up his eldest son (12). Coming in from the direction of okaido, the school was near the intersection of National Route 398 and Kitakami Canal.

Cars were crammed on the bridge that allowed passage to inland areas. All were scrambling to move forward. The car horns blared.

Kamiyama avoided the bridge, taking a longer route to reach Kama Elementary. It took him more than 20 minutes after leaving home, four times the usual time to get there. As he put his son in the car and started to drive off, dark water rushed towards them. They abandoned the car, and ran up to the upper floors of the school building.

Similarly, on National Route 398 in Minato-cho, Ishinomaki City, the traffic did not budge. Not only the incoming lanes towards Utsumibashi bridge, but also the outgoing lanes had cars lined up to the distance.

“Run, run!” Yoshiaki Shoji (61)B, who noticed the tsunami closing in, threw down the bicycle he was riding. He called for evacuation in a loud voice as he crossed the national route, and ran into Minato Elementary. It seemed only two or so people came out of their cars.

“The center of the city is similar to an ‘island.’”

Yosuke Futakami, Head of the Ishinomaki City Disaster Risk Management Department, traces his fingers over the map. The city center, surrounded by Ishinomaki Bay, the Old Kitakami River, and Kitakami Canal, does indeed seem like an island.

The daytime population of the city center is around 40,000 to 50,000. In order to escape the “island” and evacuate inland, it is necessary to cross one of the 13 bridges of varying size that cross over the Old Kitakami River and Kitakami Canal. Cars regularly flood the area around these bridges on weekday mornings and evenings.

“Ishinomaki faces the challenge of being unable to dissolve the traffic congestion by simply avoiding car evacuation,” says Director Futakami.

On December 7 of last year, a tsunami warning was issued offshore of Miyagi Prefecture. For around an hour and a half, car headlights lined up on the highway in the city center. The eight roads that lead to Hiyoriyama Mountain were also lined with cars from the foot of the mountain.

Masato Kusajima of Ishinomaki City walked up to Hiyoriyama Mountain with his students from a cram school located in front of the municipal office. They passed by many cars. He chose to walk, based on his experience during the 2011 earthquake when he was nearly swallowed by the waves while driving.

The construction of roads effective for tsunami evacuation still lies far ahead. In the meantime, major traffic congestions that recall the road conditions of “that day” will continue to be repeated.

◎Preparing conditions for evacuation by foot; A problematic lack of guidance / Dr. Naoya Sekiya, Associate Professor, Toyo University (Disaster Sociology)

It is no surprise that roads with regularly high traffic will become congested during disasters. As for routes in coastal cities, roads along the ocean that connect with other coastal cities are widened, but are not equipped to handle tsunami evacuation.

The maintenance of North-South roads leading inland does not seem to be improving in Ishinomaki City either. During the earthquake and now, intersections become crowded because of the thin traffic lines stretching North-South, and highways running parallel to the sea also become congested.

Similar to Ishinomaki City, those living in places like Kesennuma City and Tagajo City, where populations concentrate in the coastal areas, should definitely avoid returning to their homes near the sea. At the same time, they should make sure to 1) Avoid using cars for evacuation, and 2) Abandon their cars and escape if in the middle of driving.

However, people tend not to take action based solely on past lessons or the spirit of self-discipline. The resistance against abandoning vehicles will remain. There needs to be a mechanism that would allow these people to leave their cars and evacuate without hesitation.

Using electronic signage and emergency radio systems to signal, “Abandon your car and evacuate”. Drawing lines on road shoulders indicating where to park during disasters, and having stores along the road put out signs indicating that they provide parking spaces.

Whenever I go to the disaster-stricken areas, I am surprised by the lack of guideposts indicating evacuation routes and evacuation areas. There are many who come from afar to assist in reconstruction efforts, and the signage should be put up as soon as possible. People decide to drive because they do not know where to escape, and believe that cars would take them further away.

According to national research, the percentage of people who evacuated by car during the Great East Japan Earthquake reached 57%. If you use cars in daily life, it is fine to evacuate by driving on roads that would not become crowded during disasters.

However, “areas where car evacuation becomes a liability,” where roads regularly face traffic congestion, should take priority in building evacuation buildings and tsunami towers, and continue to develop various methods that would discourage the use of vehicles.

January 4, 2013 (Fri.)
Translated by Anna Wada