In the city of Ishinomaki, in the region that was once the town of Kahoku, was Okawa Elementary School. Okawa Elementary School was located by both the Kitakami River and the Pacific Ocean. On March 11, 2011, the school was hit by a tsunami. Referred to as one of the worst tragedies of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami, 74 students and 10 teachers died.
After the earthquake struck at 2:46 pm, the teachers had approximately an hour to decide how to best evacuate the students from the coming tsunami. However, the teachers did not expect the tsunami to come. While only four kilometers from the Kitakami River, the river can’t be seen from the school. Instead of coming from the ocean, the tsunami first came from the river, which overflowed. While one teacher suggested fleeing to the mountains behind the school, they were ignored, and the rest of teachers continued to wait to escape. Some students also brought up the same idea, but were silenced. The teachers ultimately decided to flee using a bridge to a nearby hill in the direction of the river. While crossing the bridge, the students and teachers were swallowed by the waves. Those who had decided fleeing to the mountain was a better option and broke off from the rest survived.
In front of the building lie two poles. The distance between them was the width of the bridge they tried to cross. Nothing remains of the bridge itself.
In the ruins of the school, you can tell that the tsunami came from the river. A suspended hallway that connected two buildings-now collapsed-faces away from the ocean. This is a special characteristic of the 2011 tsunami-it flowed up rivers, causing destruction even to places farther from the ocean.
Okawa Elementary School stands out uniquely as a failure to protect students. Parents, of course, were betrayed. Underestimating the tsunami, the teachers wasted precious time that could have spent evacuating. And moreover, it made no sense for the teachers to head towards water when shelter was minutes away from them. Why didn’t they go to the mountain? Apparently, some teachers feared collapsing trees. Only a single tree was out of place as we walked up the mountain road.
But the teachers were obviously just doing what they thought was best. Surely they were trying to protect the children. This brings up the question: since most of the teachers were also victims, is okay to attack and criticize them? They, too, have families who lost them. Regardless, the teachers fell trap to the mistake of “thinking lightly of the tsunami.”
Of course, this tragedy is contrasted with another Elementary School disaster site. While Okawa Elementary School was only two stories, much too short to avoid being swallowed by the waves, Arahama Elementary School, a four-story building, was preserved. But it is not just the construction of the building that saved the students, teachers, and citizens who had fled to Arahama Elementary School. It was also the quick thinking of the school’s principal, vice principal, and the head of the local neighborhood association that saved them.
I think these incidences show a problem of human psychology: the normalcy bias. In other words, complacency. People tend to assume that they will not be in danger. When making a decision under stress, they are not able to take in the new information as easily, and go with their first reaction. In the case of Arahama Elementary School, the teachers and students had done the drills enough times?and continually revised them-such that they were able to think on their feet much more easily.
And furthermore there is the case of Nakahama Elementary School in the town of Yamamoto, where luck saved the students. While the school was more sturdily built than Okawa Elementary, it was short, and barely avoided being swallowed up by the waves. The students survived, fleeing to the roof of the school, using their seat cushions as makeshift pillows until the tsunami subsided and they could return to the top floors. The building is currently being converted into a memorial in a similar manner to Arahama Elementary school.
These sights also bring up the question of what should be done with the remains of disasters. Keeping these sights can plague the local community, reminding them of the trauma of loss of life. In the cases of Nakahama and Arahama Elementary, the question is somewhat simpler, because no one died, but even then, it is not a simple decision. Okawa Elementary is rather rare-a place with massive loss of life that was preserved.
While it is understandable that citizens do not want to keep buildings where people have died tragically, I personally feel that preserving some of them is important. We memorialize many tragedies, not to diminish the pain of loss, but because it is necessary for us to be reminded of that pain. This reminder can serve as a motivation to prevent future disasters. Of course, that’s easy for me to say. I don’t look at these buildings and see a lost friend, child, or parent. I can only imagine what it must be like to have to stare at reminders of loss in your community. While this may seem like an irrelevant question eight years after the disaster, even today the debate around whether former disaster sites should be preserved. At the Disaster Emergency Center in the town of Minamisanriku, for example, all but 10 of 45 employees lost their lives. The remains of the building-naught but steel foundations-still exist, at least for now, located in the middle of the town. Miyagi Prefecture’s local government must make a decision by 2031 whether to keep or demolish the building, and the discussion-whether preserving a reminder of the tragedy in hopes that it can be avoided in the future in exchange for causing the people living there pain in the present.