Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

March 11 marked the seven-year-anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that destroyed most of Rikuzentakata before traveling around the globe to destroy Crescent City’s harbor.

While it would be hard to find someone locally who is unaware a tsunami destroyed most of Crescent City in 1964, Mayor Blake Inscore stressed the importance of increased awareness and training.

In a presentation to the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, Inscore discussed the recent trip to Japan and outlined the city’s efforts to stay prepared.

Inscore’s presentation followed a timely comment by local resident Chuck Orton, who said he was 19 when the tsunami hit in 1964.

“We watched this whole town go upside-down,” Orton said.

Orton said since then, he has seen many occasions when the tsunami warning system sirens sound, people in stores downtown seem complacent to it. He suggested some sort of community education or practice drills to get locals more attuned to what they should do in an actual emergency.

“People are so complacent about it,” he said. “Once you see this happen and you have deaths in your family, it’s a whole different ball game.”

Inscore opened his presentation by noting that the difference between Rikuzentakata construction progress a year ago versus last month was dramatic.

Inscore said during the delegation’s official welcoming to Japan, Rikuzentakata’s Mayor Futoshi Toba made the first announcement that he would be coming to the U.S.

Disaster preparedness

Inscore showed a photo of Rikuzentakata’s Visitor Center which sustained the 2011 tsunami. A digital mark on the photo highlighted the depth of the water, which measured more than 50 feet (five stories) up. He showed photos of Rikuzentakata’s new sea wall, which is designed to slow, not stop, an incoming tsunami wave.

“It’s also designed in a way that moves,” he said, showing a photo of the wall’s gridded face. “Those are all individual blocks that are all connected. It’s designed so that it will withstand this, much in the same way that out harbor is designed to flex and move.”

In speaking to the former fire chief in Rikuzentakata, the delegation heard the real-time story from the perspective of one who was on the ground during the tsunami. Inscore said he watched a security cam video from the top of Rikuzentakata’s city hall that was “nothing short of terrifying.”

Inscore explained the philosophy of “tsunami tendenko,” which has been taught in Japan since the 1940s.

“The basic principle is that in the event of a tsunami, you are responsible for your own life,” he said. “Children have been taught this. Adults had been taught this. They had grown up with this principle.”

However, he noted statistics gathered after the tsunami showed that as many as 40 percent of residents hesitated at the evacuation call.

“Forty percent of the people were not sure, ‘should I just go, should I go look for somebody — should I go ...’ even though, for an entire generation that had been trained in this principle,” Inscore said. “And yet, as Mr. Orton had said, that principle had become something they had taken for granted.”

However, at a school just north of Rikuzentakata in Kamaishi, almost all of its 3,000 students survived, due in part, to disaster preparedness training brought back into the schools starting five years earlier.

“Their students knew exactly what to do when the time came,” Inscore said. “That’s huge.”

Inscore noted a key component of trips to Japan revolve around learning about these methods and practices.

Inscore’s showed photos of Rikuzentakata’s fire hall, which shares space with its emergency operations headquarters. In the event of an emergency in Del Norte County, an emergency operations center will be set up in the Washington Boulevard firehouse, he noted.

“Theirs is open 24 hours a day, it’s where they do regular dispatch for fire, police and anything else,” he said, showing a photo of Rikuzentakata’s automated call system.

“They’ve installed speaker systems throughout the city so at any given time, they can give audio alerts, not just a horn or a siren,” he said. “They can actually give people instructions and tell them exactly what to do and where to go.”

Inscore noted previously-completed emergency planning documents which are valuable to leaders, but may not have been seen by them.

From an education standpoint. Inscore noted that Rikuzentakata’s schools essentially made such documents into a comic book that can be used by kids and their parents, to learn the emergency procedures. City officials there have a pocket-sized version with emergency numbers and information, he said. Inscore said he has someone translating the document to see how the City may replicate it.

“I do not want anyone to think that I have undervalued the work that’s been done here,” Inscore stated. “I value, highly, the work that’s been done. I just believe that we need a higher level of engagement with our citizenry. We need to teach and to train.”

Inscore noted that participation in Rikuzentakata’s disaster drills are mandatory, and everything else stops in order to make it happen.

Economic development

Inscore noted Rikuzentakata’s new businesses, the partial rebound of oyster farming there.

Delegates heard a presentation in Rikuzentakata regarding the inundation of salt into agricultural soils, particularly rice. The salt had to literally be washed from the soil and returned. The city has also started building large greenhouses to grow strawberries and tomatoes in winter in cedar bark, using very little soil.

“This is something we could be doing,” Inscore said, noting the indoor crops also have heaters and bee boxes.

Inscore also highlighted Rikuzentakata’s “hometown tax,” which allows taxpayers to allocate a portion of their income back to their town.

“Everyone who donates a part of their hometown tax back to Rikuzentakata, they are provided a gift proportional to the amount of money they give. They’re using some of that money to employ disabled workers through the Dream Project.”

Cultural exchange

Delegates met and spoke to high school students, artists, local business operators, community service providers and spent a lot of time dancing. The group was welcomed into Rikuzentakata homes and visited Rainbow House, built by a Japanese non-profit company to help and provide resources for orphaned children.

“In Rikuzentakata proper, there were 42 children who were orphaned, meaning they lost both their parents in the tsunami,” he said, noting the building has been expanded to house other family services.

Inscore noted an invitation had been made to Rikuzentakata’s Mayor to visit and make official the sister city relationship. The invitation was accepted and the Japanese delegation will come to Crescent City on Contour Airlines April 15 and depart April 18.

A public gathering is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 16 at the Cultural Center.

Board response

Board Chair Chris Howard predicted the upcoming visit and sister city relationship will do a lot to educate and inform local residents about tsunami response.

Supervisor Bob Berkowitz called the trip a tremendous learning experience.

“It just brings to mind how unprepared we are, compared to what their preparations are,” he said. “I think it’s going to force us to take a look and see how we can improve it. “

Supervisor Lori Cowan said she saw a lot of hope built in Rikuzentakata in the last year since the previous delegation’s visit.

“It was nice to see that hope but we as a group, came back, collectively saying ‘How do we get it into our schools,’” Cowan said. “We all grew up learning to get under the desk for earthquakes. We need to drill this into our children and our adults.”

Cowan said the tsunami tendenko principle was hardest for her to fathom, as her first instincts would be to get to her child.

“Somebody said to me, ‘No, Lori, you can’t. You can’t go pick him up, you can’t tell him where to be. He has to take care of himself,’” she said. “I didn’t want to hear that. I still don’t want to hear that, but that’s reality, because if I tell him to be prepared for me to pick him up and I don’t make it, then he’s sitting there and doesn’t make it, because I didn’t get him. That was a hard thing but that’s what we need to teach.”

Cowan said she had talked to the other delegates about what it would take to get the message across locally.

“All of us said, ‘fear,’” Cowan said, “and you hate to use that word, but I don’t know how else to get it out to the community. These people went through drills with 100 percent, mandatory participation and they still lost thousands of people. I hear our sirens go off every (first) Tuesday of the month, and we ignore them. It’s part of our life. How do we get people to take it seriously?”

Cowan said she will continue to speak to people and push to get awareness and preparedness programs into local schools.

“The more we talk, the more I have an opportunity to share, the more people can realize this is more than just a feel-good thing,” Inscore said.

Reach Tony Reed at