Hiroshi Kameyama, the mayor of Ishinomaki, put on a formal business suit that morning, March 11, and drove 35 miles down the coast to Sendai to attend a symposium on the commercialization of algae.
The mayor, a former engineering professor, enjoyed talking about science and saw an opportunity to speak to potential investors about his city’s overlooked charms. Ishinomaki was not glamorous, but it had fine roads, a university and a lovely, meandering coastline dotted with bays and beaches.
His city had excellent access to the sea.
That morning, Toshikatsu Kumagai, a 34-year-old newspaper reporter, set off in the same direction, stopping in a nearby town to get details about a local council budget meeting. It was shaping up as a slow news day. Kumagai’s paper, circulation 5,000, would hit the streets that afternoon with a front-page story about an elderly councilman who had died of an ulcer and an article about children who had performed well in an abacus contest.
A few miles away, on the other side of Ishinomaki, Taylor Anderson, a 24-year-old English teacher from Richmond, rode her bike that morning to Mangokuura Elementary School. She needed to work on plans for a graduation ceremony the next day.
Spring was close at hand, but the fields were still brown. The forecast called for a late-winter snow. The ocean was cold, gray and calm.
Out at sea, beneath the floor of the Pacific, immense and chaotic geological forces were at work. They were invisible to humans, save for the suggestion in the rugged landscape that this is a place shaped by ancient compressions and upheavals.
In this land of volcanoes, earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis, the Japanese people have overcome natural catastrophes and a terrible world war to create a highly advanced, technological society. They pride themselves on disaster preparation. Their buildings can roll with seismic waves. Their coastal cities have seawalls and tsunami sirens.
In Ishinomaki, loudspeakers dangled from lampposts, ready to broadcast the warning that a wave was coming and everyone must run for higher ground.
Mayors, journalists, teachers, schoolchildren — they all knew how to take cover under a desk when the earth began to shake. They were fully prepared for a disaster.
But no one could have been ready for the one they got.
Taylor Anderson taught English to Japanese students in a program that assigned her to eight different schools in this coastal city. She had been in Japan 21 / 2 years, working on contract with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET). She loved the country, loved the language, loved reading Japanese authors and had begun to play taiko, the Japanese drum.
She hung out with other American teachers, organizing their trips to karaoke bars. The American schoolteachers in Ishinomaki called themselves the “Ishi crew,” and many lived in the same apartment building in an older part of the city.
Ishinomaki, population 162,000, wasn’t anyone’s first choice for a teaching assignment. It wasn’t as exciting as Tokyo or even Sendai. And it had a certain smell. That was one of the first things many Americans noticed. Fish processors made pink paste that the Japanese plopped onto ramen noodles. Miso factories made paste from fermented soybeans. Another factory made paper, and another made soy sauce.
But Ishinomaki, a sprawling wedge of land that included a city and a host of towns and villages, grew on the foreign teachers. Although newer sections were crowded with fast-food joints, 7-Elevens and retail stores, the older part of town had wooden structures that preserved the traditional texture of Japan. The city had never been the target of a bombing raid during World War II. It had never had a major fire. The worst event had been a tsunami in A.D. 869, so far back in time as to be almost mythical.
This was, from all appearances, a place where nothing much had ever happened, and nothing much ever would.
At 2:46 that afternoon, one of the American teachers, Aaron Jarrad, 26, had just said goodbye to his youngest students and was typing on his laptop, setting up his teaching schedule into August. When the earth began to shake, he slid underneath a table.
Jarrad, who came from Phoenix, knew what an earthquake felt like — there’d been one just a couple of days earlier. He’d been a little unnerved. Some of the Japanese teachers had teased the jittery American.
“This is Japan. We have earthquakes. Get over it,” they had told him.
But this was more violent. When the shaking stopped, Jarrad typed a one word e-mail to his family in Phoenix.
Jarrad’s friend Steve Corbett, driving to a favorite coffee shop, pulled over as the ground heaved. A hotel in front of him swayed so violently that the 25-year-old schoolteacher feared it would collapse. People ran out of a sushi restaurant and an electronics store, embracing one another, falling to their knees. Corbett had lived through his share of earthquakes growing up in California, but he had never felt the earth convulse like this. The worst lasted five minutes. Corbett timed the aftershocks. The earth didn’t settle for 12 minutes.
“I honestly was expecting crevices to open in the ground in front of my eyes,” he said later.
He turned on the radio and heard a man speaking frantically:
“It is now 2:55 p.m. At approximately 3:00 p.m., a tsunami six meters [19 feet] in height will reach land in Miyagi prefecture. Move now to the highest ground you can find.”
Corbett gunned his car to the nearest hill.
“I thought I was running for my life with the end of the world chasing me,” he said.
At Mangokuura Elementary School, Anderson and the other teachers had led their students onto the playground and had helped parents retrieve their children. More than 300 of the kids had been swiftly whisked away when the tsunami warning sounded. About 50 remained. The teachers decided to move them to a nearby junior high that was farther inland.
Anderson helped, then jumped on her bike.
“A tsunami will come,” a teacher, Fuminao Takada, recalls warning her.
“I know,” Anderson replied in Japanese, nodding.
The teachers saw her pedaling away, standing high on the bike, pumping furiously. Anderson headed down Route 398, the Onagawa Highway, which paralleled the coast, not far from the open water of Ishinomaki Bay.
The Big One was supposed to hit elsewhere. The consensus among public officials and many scientists in Japan was that the next mega-quake would most likely occur on the Nankai Trough, a tectonic plate boundary southwest of Tokyo. Two sections of that fault had already broken, and since the 1970s the scientific orthodoxy in Japan had been that the easternmost section was primed to break next. Officials had designated the hypothetical event the “Tokai Earthquake.”
But earthquake science is still a young field, and the seismological record goes back only a century or so. The theory of plate tectonics dates only to the 1960s. It has been only since that time that scientists have come to understand that the Japan Trench, a deep furrow in the sea floor running north to south just off the coast of Japan, is where two enormous plates of the Earth come together, one fitfully sliding beneath the other. The entire Pacific Plate is moving toward Japan at about 31 / 2 inches a year. Its leading edge is jammed under Japan, and the country is literally being lifted higher. The strain builds over time, until it is released in an earthquake.
Scientists believed that this section of the Japan Trench could experience magnitude 7 and 8 earthquakes, perhaps as high as 8.4, but not magnitude 9. That’s the difference between a destructive event and a catastrophic one. The earthquake scale is logarithmic: A magnitude 9 is 10 times more powerful than a magnitude 8.
Only in the past few years had a few scientists decided that perhaps the seismological community had underestimated the Japan Trench’s capacity for a mega-quake. One man in particular sounded the alarm: Yasutaka Ikeda, a University of Tokyo seismologist.
Ikeda’s calculations showed that the magnitude 7 and 8 earthquakes along the Japan Trench were not releasing all the strain that had to be accumulating over time. In 2006, he put together a PowerPoint presentation titled “Long-term and short-term rates of crustal deformation over the northeast Japan arc, and their implications for gigantic earthquakes at the Japan Trench.”
His concluding slide stated that most of the strain would be released “in association with a big decoupling event (Mw ~9) on the subduction zone!”
He had no idea when this magnitude 9 event might happen. Such is the unfortunate fact of earthquake science.
On the morning of March 11, Ikeda took a flight to China. When he landed, he heard that there had been a magnitude 8.8 earthquake on the Japan Trench. He didn’t believe it at first. There must be some mistake.
But it was true. Indeed, it turned out to be a 9.0 quake — the largest in the history of Japan.
Ikeda felt sick. He suddenly had no desire to return home. He didn’t want to see what had happened. His theory had been vindicated, but he felt nothing but sorrow and regret.
Because what difference had his research made?
“It’s not a success story at all,” he said later by e-mail. “It’s my regret and many Japanese geologists’ regret that our works had nothing to do with mitigating disaster caused by the Mw 9.0 earthquake of 11th March.
“We did fail.”
Toshikatsu Kumagai, the newspaper reporter, thought he knew about tsunamis. He remembered the last one, just a year ago, after the Chilean earthquake sent a wave across the Pacific. By the time it hit Ishinomaki, it was ankle-high and barely slapped the beach.
So he wasn’t perturbed by this latest tsunami warning. Driving his white Honda home on a road near the coast, he hoped to see the wave come in.
Around 3:20 p.m., as he neared a bridge over the Satagawa, a usually placid river on the western side of Ishinomaki, he saw a truck in front of him come to an abrupt stop. He got out of the car, more curious than alarmed, and started taking photographs.
Then, the screams.
“I heard this strange sound — zah-zah-zah — and saw water splashing over the bridge. I thought ‘This is a tsunami.’ ”
His car was blocked by the truck. He had to make a run for it. With the water racing toward him, he ran to the side of the road and spotted a fence. He would climb it, he told himself, and stay above the water.
That was when the wave swallowed him up.
This was like the tsunami of A.D. 869 — an event out of deep time, beyond anyone’s experience. It was simple physics at work. The giant plates of the Earth had decoupled in a magnitude-9 release of strain, just as Ikeda had predicted. The seafloor had risen, lifting the ocean, creating a hill of water just off the coast. The ensuing tsunami functioned like a fleet of bulldozers lined up side to side, with more bulldozers behind them. The waves leveled everything in their path.
“So this is what dying is like,” Kumagai thought.
Take me back to Ishinomaki, said Hiroshi Kameyama, the mayor, to his driver outside the hotel in Sendai.
Kameyama had come out of academia and was now 68, bespectacled and less buttoned-down than the typical Japanese public official. He was a member of the Japanese Society for Laughter and Humor Studies, a tongue-in-cheek scholarly organization. Nothing in his past had prepared him for what he would face in the hours ahead.
The mayor telephoned his wife. She said their house was filling with water. She was on the second floor with the mayor’s 92-year-old mother, enduring a barrage of aftershocks.
The roads had been crumpled by the temblor, and Kameyama’s driver made slow progress. The mayor noticed rice fields that were inundated. But it couldn’t be so: They had taken a route away from the coast, miles from the sea.
Night fell. Not until 10 p.m. did they reach the center of the city. A journey that would normally take 45 minutes had lasted seven hours.
With no electricity to power streetlights or homes, it was pitch dark. The mayor got out to walk the rest of the way to his office, but the water was too high. His mobile phone went dead.
“Everything was sinking,” he said.
In City Hall, hundreds of bureaucrats were marooned on the upper floors of the hulking pink building. Originally a department store, it had few windows. All the exits were submerged. An emergency generator provided flickering light.
Around 11, he finally reached a makeshift emergency command center in Ishinomaki’s Red Cross Hospital, located on high ground about 21 / 2 miles from the sea.
The mayor huddled with Self-Defense Forces officers on the second floor, grappling with agonizing decisions about how to deploy the few resources still under their control — a handful of ambulances that hadn’t been swept away, a few doctors who had managed to reach higher ground. The aftershocks continued to rattle the darkened city.
“It was total chaos. I had to be very strict,” the mayor said later. He ordered the hospital to admit only those in need of treatment and turn away others who simply needed a safe place to stay.
As temperatures dipped to near freezing, tens of thousands of residents were left to fend for themselves.
Kumagai, the reporter, had never learned to swim. Now he found himself in what had become, for the moment, an extension of the Pacific Ocean — a great mass of seawater tipped by the earthquake onto the shores of northern Japan.
He struggled to stay above the surface, freezing and battered by broken pieces of the world he once inhabited. He found rescue in the form of a plastic tub that bobbed in the water. The tub kept him afloat. He eventually saw the red hull of a capsized boat and, exhausted, clambered atop it.
As night fell, the snow came. A house torn from its foundations floated by with people clinging to the roof. They shouted to him, then disappeared into the darkness. His own sanctuary twisted in the water but stayed in place, snagged on debris.
“I just sat still trying to not waste any energy,” he recalled.
He dozed off briefly. He startled awake to find the nightmare real.
Daybreak brought a glimmer of hope: A helicopter buzzed overhead. He waved. No one waved back. The helicopter was surveying a coastline of such overwhelming destruction and tragedy that a man clinging to a capsized boat was easily overlooked.
It was not until well into morning, some 18 hours after the tsunami carried him away, that another helicopter spotted Kumagai and hoisted him to safety. Soon he was at the Red Cross Hospital, where the mayor had wound up the night before.
Though bruised and worried about the numbness in his leg, he suffered most from what he didn’t know. He didn’t know who had lived and who had died. He didn’t know if his mother and father had survived.
There were so many people with worse injuries that he was quickly released from the hospital. He finally tracked down his parents, brother and pet cat, Chibi. They were among the lucky ones along this ravaged coast.
The morning after, Saturday, March 12, the scale of the disaster in Ishinomaki became clear. At Okawa Elementary School, only 31 of 108 students who had shown up for class were known to have survived. The rest were dead or missing. Following the same well-practiced drill that had been performed at Taylor Anderson’s school, the students had gathered on the playground to wait for help — and then were swept away by the tsunami.
Along the coast between Okawa and Ishinomaki’s central district, the town of Onagawa, population 10,000, had been erased but for a flooded hospital on a hill and the shattered remains of a marine exhibition hall. The tsunami had carried seawater miles inland, to places that couldn’t even see the ocean.
In the days afterward, the American teachers sent texts, e-mails or updated their Facebook pages when they could get a wireless signal. They tried to account for all 11 teachers who had been stationed in Ishinomaki. Corbett went from shelter to shelter, and from hospital to hospital, with a list of names.
Aaron Jarrad was finally able to send an e-mail to his family: “I love you all dearly im safe please don’t worry too much”
The only one missing was Anderson.
The school where she had taught that day had barely been damaged by the waves, and the U.S. Embassy initially told her family that she’d been spotted at a hospital. But when Anderson’s friends pressed embassy officials, they said they had spoken too soon.
Eleven days after the earthquake, Anderson’s body was found near a high school along the highway near the ocean, her friends said. She had made it about halfway back to her apartment.
Mayor Kameyama now spends his days struggling to comfort the citizens of Ishinomaki and trying to calm mounting anger over the shortage of food. He sleeps on a couch in his office. He worries about nuclear radiation.
The tsunami caused damage at a nuclear power plant in nearby Onagawa, and though officials say the danger there has passed, the mayor remains anxious. Eighty-five miles down the coast, workers for the Tokyo Electric Power Co. are struggling to bring the six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi complex under control.
There was another aftershock Monday in Ishinomaki, and a tsunami warning. A false alarm, it turned out, but the authorities discovered that the batteries on many of the emergency loudspeakers no longer work. Officials scrambled to replace them.
By Tuesday, 2,283 corpses had been identified in Ishinomaki, and 2,643 people were still missing. Nearly 23,000 people were in shelters, and thousands more shivered in damaged and waterlogged homes.
The mayor wonders if the warning system worked too well over the years — if some people had grown complacent.
“We are too used to earthquakes and hearing alarms,” he said.
Scientists warn that another mega-quake is possible, perhaps one farther south on the Japan Trench, closer to Tokyo. It might not happen for many years, decades or even centuries. Or it could happen any day, any moment.
Higgins reported from Ishinomaki, Onagawa and Sendai; Schulte and Achenbach reported from Washington. Staff writers Michael Alison Chandler in Tokyo and Elizabeth Flock and researchers Sachiko Iwata, Kyoko Tanaka and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.