JAPAN SIX MONTHS ON DIARY 4: Disaster preparedness and living life to the full

Publié: 10 septembre 2011 9:00 CET

By Francis Markus in Kesennuma, Japan

Norishige Onodera, the principal of Shishiori Primary School is a chatty, jokey character in his late 50’s. But when he takes us out to the balcony of his school to show us where the Tsunami came in, he suddenly becomes a different, much quieter man.

“It came from over there,” he says, indicating the river just a hundred meters or so away from where we are standing. “After the earthquake, the parents all came to pick up their children from the school, but one grandfather came for his three grandchildren and the tsunami hit their car and they were all killed.”

So now, Mr Onodera tells the children that they should not forget about the disaster and those who helped them through it, and that they should live life to the full, living a bit extra to make up for the three who died.

He says he himself tried not to think about the traumatic events of March 11. Until one day, he met a family from nearby, who were on their way to the morgue to search for a missing relative. “They had been going there every day,” he says. “That made me realise that I should not try to put the disaster out of my mind, because whatever we do, it is still present.”

From what I can see that lesson is being put into practice. On the floor in one second story room, a poster-sized piece of summer vacation homework sets out one student’s thoughts about what is important in earthquake preparedness, such as discussing an evacuation point for the whole family, and preparing a survival kit full of useful things you may need in an emergency.

The school itself is now better equipped than before the disaster, at least in terms of its clinic. Along with more than 60 other schools in the prefecture, the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS) has donated new equipment here.

But does Mr Onodera – a man who survived a tsunami in this part of Japan caused by the 1960 earthquake in Chile, when he was a pupil in this school – think that enough is being done in disaster preparedness?

Not necessarily, he says. For a start it would be much better if the school had been relocated – when it was rebuilt last year – to higher ground, like a nearby junior high school. But that option was rejected because of lack of suitable land.

Also, people need to be more aware of the dangers. “Even when there was a tsunami warning recently, many people rushed to stand by the river and watch for the tsunami, instead of evacuating to higher ground.”

It was a case of crying wolf. “When there was a tsunami warning and none came, then the next time people didn’t take the warning seriously.”

Japan has a reputation as one of the most disaster-prepared countries. But judging from Mr Onodera’s comments, there is still more that can be done.

And that reminds me of a discussion I had before leaving Tokyo for the disaster area. Because if this is true for the earthquake and tsunami, according to JRCS President Tadateru Konoe, it’s even more true of the Fukushima nuclear accident.

“The fact is that nuclear plants were believed to be safe in Japan, but that is not the case, so wherever nuclear plants exist, we have to be prepared for any eventuality or accident. From there we can start analysisng different possiblities and scenarios for preparation and addressing any potential accident,” he says.