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Wave-watching, then clinging for life, on a Japanese rooftop

Despite their history with tsunamis, or maybe because of it, coastal residents including one mayor were complacent about evacuating.

Debris, including an overturned bus, left by the tsunami in Minami Sanriku, north of Sendai.

Debris, including an overturned bus, left by the tsunami in Minami Sanriku, north of Sendai. Mitsuko Sobata/World Vision

Floating house after Japan earthquake and tsunami, 2011

Floating house after Japan earthquake and tsunami, 2011 Airman 1st Class Katrina R. Menchaca, via Wikimedia

PORTLAND — The most important image from last week’s tsunami might turn out to be the one none of us have seen. It has to be conjured only from words: The mayor of a town on the Sanriku coast, north of Sendai, moves with others to the top of the three-story city hall to watch the tsunami roll in 30 minutes after the great earthquake. But the water overtops that building and sweeps away most of the 30 people there. The mayor narrowly avoids death by clutching to a steel fence, but in living to tell what happened he raises a serious question: Were Sanriku residents, of all people, complacent?

“I thought they were prepared,” says Oregon coastal geologist Rob Whitter, who’s spearheading a tsunami-mapping project to prepare for Cascadia’s own great earthquake and potential 100-foot waves. To Witter and other tsunami experts, Japan is considered the gold standard for preparedness; and it’s deeply disparaging to see the Japanese overwhelmed and tens of thousands of them still missing.

But if Japan, and particularly Sanriku, actually had a deeply flawed approach to tsunamis, they may, in fact, help the Pacific Northwest chart a way forward.

Sanriku was highly equipped but also, apparently, numb.

Japan, of course, is steeped in tsunami history, having invented the word and recorded events in minute detail dating back to 684. The country now spends more than any other nation on seismic research and instruments, in part to aid tsunami warnings that a Japanese seismologist once proudly told me can be issued as soon as one minute after an earthquake.

Sanriku communities, the most heavily battered by Japan’s tsunamis through the centuries, are known for their diligence in commemorating tsunamis past with an act of preparation — by walking annually to monuments that mark the extent of historical flooding. They maintain buffer spaces lined with trees along the coast to break the waves. And the government had sponsored construction of protective seawalls up to 200 feet high and floodgates at river mouths, to complement the early-warning system.

But at the same time, some in-depth reports in recent years indicate that complacency was spreading among residents on the coast. Sitting behind a network of defenses, large numbers have chosen not to evacuate after big quakes in the past. Some people have even become fixated on seeing tsunamis hit the coast, in past years heading toward the ocean after big earthquakes in the hopes of witnessing drama up close. If so, that lucky mayor on Friday was simply one of many; already, there’s a trickle of stories about walls failing to stop the waves and whole communities turning into sitting ducks.

To compound the problem, some reports claim that scientists and planners underestimated the worst-case tsunami’s size in Sanriku. And making matters still worse, there’s evidence that the power outages that followed Friday’s earthquake left tsunami alarms silent.

In the Pacific Northwest, it should already be clear that warning systems are not a panacea. Our own system for the West Coast offers a solid alert for distant tsunamis coming from places like Japan, but it still isn’t effective for quick-arriving waves expected from the nearby Cascadia fault. Following Japan’s experience last week, national and regional officials need to step up their campaign to tell people to evacuate without hesitation or an official bulletin after feeling a big earthquake.

And everyone, even the casual tourist at the coast, needs to open their ears. Visitors make up at least half of the 90,000 people living, working, and traveling through the Oregon tsunami zone everyday and another 85,000 are in Washington’s vulnerable zone. British Columbia’s rugged Vancouver Island is more sparsely populated, but it’s also a tourist magnet.

In Oregon, Rob Witter and his colleagues struggle to update the message and establish safe evacuation routes: Even with new federal funding after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, “We’re running a bare-bones crew of mostly geologists. I’m six months behind on making (flood) maps. We need professional educators and psychologists and people who understand social issues.” Their part-time outreach workers are funded in three communities a year, for the next four years. Then they go away.


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