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Tsunami preparation leads citizens into low-lying death traps

Tsuyoshi Kinno, 73, holds a picture of a missing friends son and daughter at a weddings in Rikuzen-Takaata, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan March 14, 2011. Thousands of people died in this small town 70 km north east of Sendai.

Boaz Arad/Boaz Arad

When the tsunami warning buzzer rang out over this sleepy port on Japan's northeast coast, people knew what to do because they'd practised for the moment all their lives. They calmly left their homes and made their way to the gathering places designated by the municipal government: City Hall; a community centre; the local gymnasium.

For hundreds of people, if not more, the shelters they were ordered into proved to be deathtraps. Rikuzen-Takata's disaster plan had been designed to deal with the three- and four-metre waves the city had seen in 1960 after an earthquake in faraway Chile. No one had anticipated the 15-metre tsunami that crashed through the city on Friday following a 9.0-magnitude earthquake just offshore, one that flung boats, shipping cranes and people inland, drowning those who had done as they were told and gathered in the low-lying shelters.

Of the estimated 1,000 people huddling in the three buildings, the only survivors were 100 people who made their way to the top floor of City Hall. The rest were swept away by a tide so high and fierce that it blew out the walls and windows on all three floors of the neighbouring shopping centre.

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"People just relied on the bureaucracy. They became too obedient," said Tsuyoshi Kinno, head of the neighbourhood committee in one of the districts of Rikuzen-Takata closest to the Pacific coast. "The administration made a mistake."

Mr. Kinno was wandering through the silent remains of the city Tuesday, poking at the ground with a stick as Rikuzen-Takata continued its gruesome search for the thousands still missing and presumed dead beneath the rubble. In his other hand, he held a mud-covered photograph of a wedding he'd attended. The bride and groom were both among the missing, he said.

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As the full scale of the damage caused to Japan's east coast gets clearer, it's becoming plain that this town of 24,000 was among the hardest hit.

Once a pretty port set between the Yokote mountains and the Pacific Coast, Rikuzen-Takata effectively no longer exists. The town centre has been reduced to a vast field of flipped cars, mud-covered furniture and broken concrete. Only a few windowless buildings remain upright in the town centre, jutting up like tombstones from the field of death and destruction around them.

The death toll was still climbing Monday as rescue workers picked through the rubble with sticks, discovering new bodies so fast that they ran out of body bags and started carrying corpses on blankets taken from destroyed homes. Local officials estimated that between 20 and 40 per cent of the city's predisaster population is dead.

"I think everybody in Takata town [the part of the city closest to the water] is dead," said Matsumi Konno, a 54-year-old woman who was scanning a missing persons message board set up in a hilltop middle school that has been converted into a refuge for those who escaped the wreckage below. She was furious that her friends and neighbours had been herded into shelters so close to the coastline.

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Mr. Kinno, the neighbourhood committee head, agreed that many had died because of poor preparation. Although he was outside Rikuzen-Takata when he felt the initial earthquake, he turned around and drove back into town when he heard the tsunami alarm.

When the 73-year-old arrived downtown, he was appalled to see so many people huddled inside the tiny community centre. "It was unintelligent," he said, so he asked everyone to follow him to higher ground.

It was too late. As Mr. Kinno led a group of 60 people outside, he saw the wall of water coming for them. "It was black, black water. It was as if Godzilla had come and was trying to eat the people," he recalled with awe in his voice.

Forty of those who followed Mr. Kinno into the streets were swept away in the rush of black. The rest scrambled into City Hall and raced the water up the stairs to the top floor, those moving too slowly drowning on their way up the stairs, Mr. Kinno said.

The water poured right through Rikuzen-Takata, and rushed past the mountains, filling the rice-growing valleys in between. The devastation carried five kilometres up the road into tiny mountain villages from where the ocean previously hadn't been visible.

"We didn't think this was possible," said 52-year-old Iwako Onodera as she picked her way through the soggy and smashed remains of her family's two-storey home, which now had a disconnected stretch of railway track and a flipped white Toyota van in the backyard. Though Ms. Onodera and her children were away when the wave struck, her parents died when water flooded the entire ground floor of the house.

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Her brother Kaoru built the family home 10 years ago, but as he and Ms. Onodera salvaged whatever they could from the house, he said he didn't expect to be back. "I don't think people will want to move back here."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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