The devastated coast of Minami Soma City

On Monday I took a two-day business trip to Minami Soma City, in the disaster-affected area of East Japan. Minami-soma city was hit by the tsunami, and although there does not seem to be much online footage of Minami Soma City’s experience, the effect on nearby Soma City (just north of Minami Soma) can be seen in this terrifying video (the main wave is at about 8 minutes). Minami soma city is just 23 km from the Fukushima Number One nuclear power plant, so soon after the tsunami hit the town was included in the government’s 20-30km voluntary evacuation / limited outdoor activity zone. Its population reduced enormously in the weeks that followed, and has now returned to just over half its pre-tsunami numbers. The town is also home to about 6,000 displaced persons, living in temporary housing. My purpose in visiting – along with some of the students of my department – was to help the local hospital with some research they are doing into the health of these displaced persons and of the residents of the town generally.

As part of my stay I was taken to the area where the tsunami hit, which is a stretch of coastline extending a few kms inland from the sea. These photos show some of the damage that I saw there. The full set can be viewed in my flickr account.

Entering the ruins

When we drove into the area I thought perhaps it used to be farmland, because aside from the piles of rubble it is completely flat, but in fact this whole area used to be houses and businesses. The ground is flat like fields because it was scoured clean of all but the largest structures, and the resulting rubble has been gathered together into great piles of debris (visible in the photo above). This gives the area the impression of being a moonscape or wasteland, where once houses used to be, and the area from which one enters the destruction zone is lined with these piles of rubble. If one drives for a few more minutes, one can reach the sea wall and look back over the entire devastated area, as in the picture below.

Sunset over the devastation

The sea wall itself is about 4m high on the outside, made of huge slabs of concrete. On the seaward face there is a small stony beach and then some lines of tetrapods (concrete structures that act as further wave barriers). The sea wall survived the tsunami, but was heavily damaged and didn’t serve to impede it. Parts of it were broken off and swept away, and its landward side was heavily damaged. I think the wave just ran over the top of it. We walked along this wall and the two photos below show the wall in both directions. The photo at the top of this post, of Miss A returning to our car, was taken from the top of the wall.

Looking south in the lee of the sea wall

On the sea wall, looking north

Facing North (the second picture of the sea wall), one can see the only surviving structure near the sea – that strange orange building that has been hollowed out but withstood the wave itself. I guess other smaller objects survived but have subsequently been removed in the clean up, because as we left the area we entered the rubble zone and passed huge piles of broken stone that must have been taken from this area. We also passed a graveyard of cars. In amongst all this neatly-arranged debris there were also a few boats.

A fire engine

We spent the night in the hospital, in one of the unused wards. Staff levels have declined at the hospital, though the patient load has as well, but business seems to be going on pretty much as normal there. In fact, this is one of the strangest things about Minami Soma City: once you pass over the low line of scrub and hills that separates the unscathed part of the city from the damaged area, life goes on pretty much as normal. It’s as if nothing ever happened here, except that it’s quieter than a normal town and a lot of the businesses are on reduced hours or shut. It’s not a ghost town, though, and everything is perfectly normal there – we went out drinking and having fun with the other doctors in the evening, and everything was just like any other rural Japanese town, if a little quiet.

You are 23km from Fukushima Number One plant

As the sign in the hospital says, Minami Soma City is quite close to the power plant, and the only road leading to it from Fukushima passes even closer. It’s quite hard to get to Minami Soma City – there are only 3 buses a day from Fukushima, so it’s either a long bus trip to Tokyo (probably 6-8 hours) or a bullet train to Fukushima city and then one of those three buses. The buses were also not able to run at first, because of the exclusion zone, but now they’re open and the journey to Minami Soma City takes us through several deserted towns in the exclusion zone.  I think a few people might still be staying on in these towns but they were largely deserted, and the only people I saw were a work crew in full radiation suits, cleaning an outside area in the driving snow. The only other signs of life in the area were animal prints in the gathered snow.

This whole area is obviously struggling with the triple challenges of dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy, rebuilding, and the fallout of the nuclear plant. Many people have left and the area is certainly suffering physically and economically. With the one year anniversary of the events coming up soon I imagine a lot of sad memories of the tragedy will be rekindled. But the people there are kind, friendly, and full of warmth and energy not just to rebuild their town but to turn the tragedy into useful lessons for disaster management in the future. I’m hoping through my advice and support to provide some small contribution to that process, and perhaps to be able to learn some lessons about post-disaster management in an aging society. The atmosphere there was one of hope and energy to make a better future, and despite the sad story that these pictures tell, the people there offer a great deal of inspiration to make a better future. Let’s hope that working together the people of Japan can overcome this disaster and, through their experience, offer other countries lessons they can use to overcome their own future challenges.