The perilous beauty of Otsuchi
by Charles Pomeroy
Drawn by the stunning beauty of a rugged coast, longtime FCCJ member Charles Pomeroy retired to his wife’s hometown in Iwate. But for the area’s harsh winter he might have ended his days there.
Earthquake, tsunami and fire: the triple whammy that destroyed Otsuchi caught everyone by surprise.
My wife Atsuko was born and raised in this picturesque community of 15,000 souls on the Sanriku coast of Iwate Prefecture. Ten years ago we built a new house on the ancestral home-site to accommodate her aging father and to prepare for our retirement. For me, it was a place to write and mess around with woodblock prints in my twilight years.
It seemed like a fine place to retire. The rugged coast reminded me of California’s Big Sur. Almost everything in this quiet town was within bicycle range: the family temple and graves; many friends from Atsuko’s school years; good medical facilities and shopping.
After Atsuko’s father passed away in 2004, we spent more and more time there. But we kept our Tokyo condo, and that’s where we were on March 11, awaiting the end of winter.
It was the strongest quake I have experienced here in over 50 years. But we did not realize the magnitude and damage until TV reports started coming in. Shortly thereafter, we began to receive e-mail from friends and family overseas. This account is based on our replies.
Our first concern was for family in Otsuchi, as well as Sendai and Aomori. So we crossed our fingers and began making plans to head north once train service resumed, thinking it might take a day or two. We were wrong of course.
What made Otsuchi beautiful – the rugged coast with its deep, funnel-like indentations, known to geographers as a “rias coastline” – is what made its location deadly. The valley funneling in from the coast magnified the force of the tsunami. The protective seawalls, not far from our house, proved useless.
So after hearing initial reports, we waited anxiously for word from relatives in the region. One by one we heard from everybody, except Atsuko’s sister Noriko and her husband Yuji in Otsuchi. With phones out of order we were left in the dark.
Meanwhile, messages of concern flooded in from FCCJ veterans now scattered around the world: Richard Pyle, AP stalwart; Richard Halloran, New York Times correspondent in the 1960s; former FCCJ president Mack Chrysler; retired AP luminary Ed White; Don & Kim Moore, who still visit every year from Honolulu; Ben and Yoshi Schranil from Dallas, and many others.
In response, I sent out the following mass e-mail on the 14th:
Although I’ve maintained my obligatory cool so far, I’m losing it as the immensity of this tragedy sets in. We still have no word from Atsuko’s family in Otsuchi. Our home there is definitely gone, as per the photo above. To the right is the local mall, and that space full of houses and debris was the parking lot. Over beyond the immediate bridge and to the right, about an eight-minute walk, was our former home. The official count for dead is over 150, but several thousand are missing, and I am afraid the final tally will be much higher. We wait with hope in our hearts.
With the shinkansen out of action indefinitely, we decided to drive north as soon we could get enough gas to go. We arranged to stay with relatives in Tono, the closest city inland, and make sorties from there into Otsuchi.
We heard from Atsuko’s nephew (Noriko’s son) and eldest sister, Saiko, who both live in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, that they had reached Otsuchi via Tono. They reported a first-hand account from the friend Noriko was visiting when the quake hit. She said that Noriko ran toward home looking for her husband rather than seeking high ground. Both Noriko and her husband were still missing.
The nephew also reported that Otsuchi was a sea of debris with the exception of a few concrete buildings, “even worse than it appears on TV news.” He strongly advised us to postpone our trip at least until some access paths were cleared into the area of our former home. In any event, for lack of sufficient gasoline to travel north, we put the trip on hold. With fuel shortages hampering the delivery of relief supplies, we felt our desire to reach Otsuchi was a bit selfish.
We considered taking a roundabout route by bus, but in the end settled on flying to Misawa, to the north of Otsuchi. From there we could get a bus to Tono, and taxi to Otsuchi.
So Atsuko flew to Misawa on the 24th, accompanied by her younger sister and brother, who both live in Tokyo. I stayed in Tokyo to handle communications, expecting to go north once enough debris had been cleared to give us access to our former home. That would be several weeks, it seemed.
On March 25th, 14 days after the quake, Atsuko reported that two cars with six family members had made it from Hachinohe to Otsuchi at mid-day.
They checked all make-shift morgues in the vicinity for Noriko and Yuji, but could find no trace. Some bodies were burned or otherwise disfigured, making identification difficult. They visited the site of Noriko’s home, but there was nothing there to see. All had been swept away.
All that remained of our home was the cement foundations, the broken pine tree that Atsuko’s father had nurtured for many years, and a huge boulder he had embedded in the garden.
Atsuko returned to Tokyo late on the 29th and gave me a much better idea of what had actually happened.
First, apparently, the time between the quake and the full-force arrival of the tsunami was longer than reported earlier. There was even time for one of our elderly neighbors to make it to safety walking with her cane.
Some, like the grandparents in the family next door, chose not to evacuate at all, believing it would not be a major event. Others, including the husband of one of Atsuko’s classmates, chose to drive out but failed to outrun the tsunami.
According to one account, no one started running until the tsunami was visible. By then it was too late for many.
Having been in Otsuchi several times when quakes triggered false tsunami alerts, I fully understand the lack of urgency among those who failed to escape. We might have been among them had we chosen to stay in Otsuchi over the winter.
One of the most haunting accounts came from those who took refuge on top of the ferroconcrete town hall. They watched Fujio Koshita, a 57-year-old fireman, ring the bell on top of the nearby firehouse until he and the building were swept away. As the warning siren failed to work properly Koshita took it on himself to climb the bell tower to warn the town of the oncoming tsunami.
Others talked of the hairdresser and her customers who escaped to the roof only to die in the flames that consumed the building. Flames in a tsunami? Yes, it is cold up there in Iwate and kerosene stoves are a major source of heating. As well, following an explosion at a gas station, fuel reportedly ran down the side of a hill and set fire to some houses. Nearby forests were also set aflame. ❶
So far the bodies of Atsuko’s sister and her husband have not turned up in the makeshift morgues. As I write, rescue workers are still pulling bodies from the ocean and from the debris. Closure, it seems, is going to be difficult for many people to achieve.
Charles Pomeroy, is a Korean war veteran, student of Japanese art history, translator, author and a journalist who covered Japan’s healthcare industry for 40 years. An FCCJ Regular Member since the mid-’60s, he was General Editor of Foreign Correspondents In Japan, the Club’s official history.