Sakai, now 67, went about his life once the shaking stopped, as did many others. It was another seismic event in a land prone to frequent tectonic convulsion, notwithstanding the length and intensity of it. Despite having lived nearly his entire life in a maritime community in which it was common knowledge that earthquakes precede tsunamis, even when the warnings began to broadcast over the citywide loudspeakers that afternoon, Sakai stayed the course.
But by the time he saw it in his rearview mirror, it was too late.
Fig. 2: Reporting of tsunamis by source and decade
Fill a dinner plate with water. Jam another plate beneath one side, and as the water cascades off the other, you will have crudely modeled the Japan tsunami. Such a banal simulation, however, would belie the reality that the preceding megathrust earthquake—measuring 9. This power lifted the seabed and ocean above it into a series of waves that measured as high as feet upon making landfall under an hour later, and was dissipated by the lives of roughly 22, Japanese , of whom 1, died in the Miyagi Prefecture city of Kesennuma.
That last figure includes the singular death of my Japanese grandmother, who died at a rest home for the elderly in the Kesennuma district of Shishiori. But when that day comes, while the difference between life and death will remain at the unpredictable intersection between technologically-aided information and human behavior, officials and experts believe two words could tip the balance toward survival: takai and kyodai. He removed gold-rimmed glasses to wipe away tears as he recounted the story of a subordinate of his who remained at his post for days after the waves hit, despite having lost both his wife and young daughter to the tsunami.
Sato, who retired from the city the year after, described the Japanese tsunami warning system as essentially a pyramid with three levels. At the top is the Japan Meteorological Agency JMA , armed with a dense network of sensors that was strictly land-based in , and an information system that enables nationwide tsunami warnings within three minutes. The at-risk citizen, finally, comprises the foundation of the system.
It is this individual who must choose to participate in local tsunami awareness programs, and ultimately decide whether or not to heed an evacuation order. By the time he arrived at his desk and the violent shaking ceased, the power had gone out. He knew the clock was ticking. At PM local time, roughly four minutes after the quake, Sato issued a general warning over the independently-powered citywide system of loudspeakers: large earthquake, turn off your gas, potential for tsunami , the alert blared.
The warning system can be heard at the second mark in a clip of what appears to be spliced-together cell phone footage taken in Kesennuma's Shishiori neighborhood. The tsunami appears two-and-a-half minutes in, accompanied by warning klaxons, and rises for the next 15 minutes. At the time, the cell system was still functioning. Though he was supposed to confer with the mayor first, Sato then broke protocol and immediately issued the first of twelve tsunami evacuation orders broadcasted to the more than 80, Kesennuma residents over the next 45 minutes.
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At an interview in a small prefabricated home he now rents from the government, he recalled the feeling of the sea shuddering his boat, the sound of his equipment rattling. He made for the island, then ran up a hill overlooking the ocean where he joined four others.
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What he saw confirmed his belief that a tsunami was on its way: currents reversing away from shore, waves lapping against the wrong side of a breakwater. Murakami remembered hearing a warning about a six-meter tsunami, but thought his home was higher than that and besides, there seemed to be plenty of time, so he descended and drove home. For the beachgoers, two precious minutes are wasted mulling over the best strategy.
The firm and the fleet decide to keep walking. The crowd slowly trudges up eight flights of stairs.
A tsunami alarm a few months earlier had sent locals scurrying for high ground. The water came in like a lamb, less than a meter high. They wrap their feet in T-shirts until they reach the Old Crab gift shop. There, one guy starts dumping armloads of flip-flops onto the sidewalk. Earthquake debris has made driving impossible. Still, some people try. They honk their horns and attempt to maneuver through the crowds. Eventually they abandon their cars and walk.
It slows as it reaches shallower depths but loses little of its power. The water along the coast begins to recede. In the major fishing harbors, a panicked exodus is under way. During the quake, boat owners recalled that tsunamis pass peacefully under vessels on the open ocean.
In Westport, Washington, a charter-fishing port directly south of Ocean Shores, dozens of vessels parade out of Grays Harbor. Toward the ocean.
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Under his arm is a surfboard. One of the retreating lifeguards spots him. The surfer waves to the lifeguard and continues walking. His body will never be found. There is no face, no pipe, no curl. A tsunami is more like a storm surge. Common waves are created by wind energy.
They come ashore more like enormous high tides, with a low, inches-high leading edge backed by a steadily rising onrush of water. A foot-high tsunami does not come ashore as a foot-high wave.
It steadily builds to that height with each successive pulse. Most locals have jumped into their cars, making their way slowly north on Point Brown Avenue. Only four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs can get past the sloppy sand breaks. A few good Samaritans encourage others to hop in the backs of their flatbeds. Others blow past. In Cannon Beach, a power outage prevents town officials from broadcasting a tsunami warning. He blows it wildly and yells at two dozen out-of-towners, who seem mesmerized by the receding tide and the bare seafloor.
The tide has gone out. And then suddenly it rushes back in. The findings do not suggest sticking around. It comes in like a tide moving at flash-flood speed. On dry land, it moves inland at a speed of 11 mph. The Wyndham and its neighbor, the five-story Shilo Inn, act like a nozzle. The water, black and powerful, jets through the opening between them: Broadway.
Some hold on to lampposts. The surge is strong enough to bend two-inch metal pipes. One- and two-story buildings groan. The water is reaching their rooflines and twisting their foundations. Some begin to lift and float up Broadway. Two of its harbor seals were crushed by falling debris.
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A few holdouts take refuge in another Shilo Inn, 14 at four stories the tallest building in town. The ocean has now entirely overtaken Ocean Shores. In Seaside, the crowd atop the Wyndham watches in horror as the water overtops the Shilo Inn across the street. Gas fumes from broken lines make it hard to breathe.
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