On March 11, 2011, the fourth-largest earthquake in recorded history struck near the coast of northern Japan. Although it caused a lot of damage, it was the resulting tsunami that harmed the country the most. The massive waves breached Japan's seawall to destroy miles of land and take more than 15,000 lives. In the process, the tsunami also knocked out the power at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, as well as its backup supply. Without electricity, the reactors were unable to cool their nuclear fuel rods, triggering a meltdown.
Of the 150,000 people forced to evacuate due to the tsunami waves and radiation, many have not returned home. They are too concerned to go back and fear radiation may still be present. Others are reluctant to live close to the nuclear plant again, despite it being decommissioned.
The scale of the disaster has been blamed on many factors: seawalls not being tall enough, previous tsunami false alarms, evacuation areas that weren't high enough or far enough away, and the failure of the Fukushima plant to prepare for this kind of event. These are the experiences of the people who survived the earthquake, tsunami, and evacuation.
The Earthquake Caused Cars To Bounce And Buildings To Sway
The 9.0-magnitude earthquake was so powerful that it caused Fukushima Daiichi worker Atsufumi Yoshizawa to fall on his hands and knees. "There was no place to hide," he said. "I managed to look out of a window and saw parked cars bouncing up and down from the sheer force of the earthquake. I had never experienced anything like it," he remembered.
Japan's history of seismic events led the government to implement special building codes to counter the effects of earthquakes, but no one had experienced an earthquake of this scale in modern times. "We were on the seventh floor and the entire building was swaying from side to side," Noriko Kato said. "It went on for a long time and I was terrified. The lights went out and my computer was knocked off the desk by the strength of the tremor and that made me realize how bad it was."
Those who ran outdoors experienced a different horror. "We rushed outside and were shocked to see fissures in the ground," a man named Tadayuki recalled. "We watched as our house swung back and forth and dust gushed from the walls like smoke."
Daisuke Konno and his friend Yuki Sato told their teacher, "If we stay here, the ground might split open and swallow us up. We'll [perish] if we stay here!"
- Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Naval Air Crewman 1st Class Jay Okonek / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The Tsunami Reached Much Farther Than People Were Prepared For
Officials predicted a three-meter-high [10-foot] tsunami wave. My company ordered employees who lived in the coastal areas to return home to help the elderly residents evacuate... My father said we would be fine because the predicted time had already passed.
Waichi Nagano, a farmer, recalled, "There were a lot of sirens, too. Everyone in the village must have heard them. But we didn't take it seriously."
Locals had developed a false sense of security due to high seawalls and previous tsunami warnings that ended uneventfully. Some people ignored the advice of others. One parent who picked up their child from school told the teacher that the radio was warning of a massive tsunami: "I said, 'Run up the hill!' and pointed to the hill. I was told [by the teacher], 'Calm down, ma'am.'"
Others falsely believed the tsunami wouldn't reach their location. "No, I am not going," one man told his granddaughter. "Tsunamis have never reached this far inland."
Many of those who fled to shelters, like Kanai Haruko, became caught in the wave as well. She told National Geographic:
[Mt. Ohira] was our designated evacuation shelter. It never occurred to me that [the wave] would reach there. By the time we arrived, I saw my house being washed away, where I was just moments before. The tsunami kept coming... The shelter was located at the base of the mountain, and the tsunami reached there. Those who headed to there [perished].
Not being able to see the impending wave helped Mikuni Fumitaka be less afraid. "If we had seen the tsunami footage on TV, we might have gone crazy watching it," he said. "But in this case, because there was no TV, we could feel more calm."
The Tsunami Trapped Many People In Their Homes Or Cars
Yuichi Kowata, a taxi driver, was heading home when the tsunami struck:
I was in the middle of the street with three customers in my car, and we climbed onto the roof together when the water started coming into the car. It was very cold and there was snow. We waited for one hour, then a young person swam to me and gave me a rope, and one-by-one people got to safety.
The tsunami trapped many others in their homes. "I stood on the furniture, but the water came up to my neck," remembered Harumi Watanabe. "There was only a narrow band of air below the ceiling. I thought I would [perish]."
Although some managed to climb above the rising water level, the height of others' homes helped them escape the waves. "I was in my home, and when the tsunami came I rushed to the sixth floor of my house," Toshinobu Sato said. "I survived because the water only came up to the second level."
Looking out the window of his home, Ryo Kanouya first thought he saw smoke above the trees. It was, in fact, the spray of the oncoming ocean. After the electricity cut out, the man and his father retreated upstairs:
The tsunami hit my home, but it stood strongly against the current. I thought we had survived, but this was only the beginning of the tsunami's power. The water level rapidly grew higher and higher until it reached the ceiling. At one moment I thought I'd try to get outside, however, the current's velocity was too strong and my efforts proved impossible. Meanwhile there was [just] a centimeter space where water lapped against the ceiling.
- Photo: Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 IGO
Others Trying To Escape The Tsunami Became Trapped In Traffic Jams
Waichi Nagano described the tsunami as "a huge black mountain of water" that wiped out the houses in its path:
It was like a solid thing. And there was this strange sound, difficult to describe. It wasn't like the sound of the sea. It was more like the roaring of the earth, mixed with a kind of crumpling, groaning noise, which was the houses breaking up.
Government worker Toshinobu Oikawa was driving on the road when he noticed white foam cresting over the tops of the trees:
And there were cars coming in the other direction, and the drivers were shouting at us: "The tsunami is coming. Get out! Get out!" So immediately we made a U-turn and went back the way we'd come.
As they drove in the opposite direction, Oikawa's passenger tried to warn others of the approaching wave, yelling, "A super-tsunami has reached Matsubara. Evacuate! Evacuate to higher ground!"
While not everyone paid attention to their warning, others tried to flee. An unnamed older man told the BBC, "The faster people ran, the more chance they had of surviving."
Unfortunately, the number of people trying to escape at once led to traffic jams. "The traffic lights had stopped working and there was massive congestion, rows and rows of cars," said Natsuko Komura, who ended a horseback ride in order to flee.
"On the way back I was stuck in traffic," Kiyoko Kawanami remembered. "There was an alarm. People screamed at me to get out of the car and run uphill. It saved me. My feet got wet but nothing else."
A man named Toru was headed for his home when he was trapped in a traffic jam and engulfed by "a huge wall of black water over six feet high." Though he managed to escape through his car window, he was immediately overtaken by the "oily, smelly" wave:
I was thrown into an auto repair shop, where I grabbed hold of a staircase and climbed onto the second floor. With great effort, I was able to pull three people to safety. A few of us survived the rising water and the cold, snowy night. But we were unable to save others who were calling for help.