Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Tadami Flood, Fukushima, July 2011

Destroyed bridge on the Tadami railway line below Honna dam above our village
As if it wasn't enough, communities already very worried by the ongoing releases of radiation from the stricken Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant were struck by record rainfalls at the end of July. Over the 72 hours until midday on Saturday 30th July, 700mm (27.5 inches) of rain fell in 72 hours in the Tadami area of Okuaizu, western Fukushima. At least 4 people died, 6,400 people were evacuated from their homes, and 500 people were cut off by floodwater, including those downstream from Tadami like our community in Kaneyama and in Yanaizu.

Our street (photo from council website)
The damage was worst in Tadami town, 30km up river, with many houses completely destroyed. Everyone on our street, only a few metres from the river, lost everything on the first (ground) floor. Rice fields and allotments that people had worked hard on were destroyed. Apart from the fact that most residents are more than 70 years old and it hit them very hard, it is sad that so much family history was lost. Over and above having your home full of mud, most painful for many people was loosing the Butsodan, the Buddhist  shrine to the family ancestors which keeps them a living presence in the home and provides continuity, sometimes over hundreds of years. Some of the houses were like domestic museums. The framed photos of the more recent dead were fortunately above the floodline. You can imagine them looking impassively down from near the ceiling as the water rose towards them. If the ancestors have seen anything, they have seen it all over the centuries, and floods have come and gone. The portrait I drew of my next door neighbour survived, and so did he, but he had to spend the next few weeks in hospital after damaging his shoulder in the clear-up. He will have been so frustrated not to be able to continue helping with the cleanup.

Below Honna dam concrete river banks were breeched, washing away house foundations and destroying rice fields and allotments.

So why did it happen? Floods are as old as water itself, and of course global warming has been accompanied by extreme weather around the world, often much worse than this in scale and casualties. But this was an 'accident' waiting to happen, and one that was a whisker away from being very much worse. Living a few metres from the river, I was very aware that flooding was a risk. This is true of any river, but there are five dams upriver from the village, the one at the top being huge. I was told that executives from Tohoku electric who own several of the dams had been doing the rounds post 3.11 trying to salvage the reputation of nuclear power -  a lost cause in Fukushima of course. Apparently they were asked if there had been any checks on the dams following the huge earthquake of 11th March. No, no extra tests, but they were sure everything was fine, and there was no risk. Of course if lots of people asked for tests they supposed they could do them. Extraordinary, and very reminiscent of the complacency of Tepco.

Concerned, we had also visited the Kaneyama council offices in May on returning from our temporary self-evacuation. As well as pressing them to urgently buy their own radiation testing equipment, instigate more detailed testing for food and soil, to source school meals from safer areas of Japan, and to draw up a plan for the emergency evacuation of children in the event of further explosions at Fukushima Daichi, I raised the issue of flood risk. I asked them what the evacuation plan was, to tell us what the warning siren sounded like, and where we were supposed to go if there was a problem. No response. I also personally raised it with the Mayor, who lived on our street. No problem , no problem. No radiation risk, and the dams were safe. Big smiles. Oh really? After a major earthquake and many aftershocks, with no extra structural checks, and no practice drills or information for residents?

Destroyed rail bridge above our house. The blue plastic covers a landslip beneath a neighbour's house

Often woken up in the night by aftershocks, I lay awake half expecting to hear the rush of water. Would we get a warning? We discussed what we would do, and I told my son to run fast for the mountainside, even if he was on his own. As it turned out I was away from home, and frustratingly I wasn't able to be there to help during a very frightening night waiting from a friend's house to see how high the water would get. The local fire and disaster volunteers thankfully did a great job of getting everyone out of their houses promptly, not letting anyone linger to save possessions, which must have saved some casualties. They have my deep respect and grateful thanks. This can't have been easy with so many elderly and frail residents, some of them bedridden.

Destroyed bridge at Yokota. Residents on the right bank had to be helicoptered to safety

After the flood it began filtering through that it was the opinion of many, through family members working on the dams, that bad decisions may have again contributed to disaster. In this case it is possible that the early and gradual release of water building up from the extreme rainfall  could have prevented the flood. This was reputedly delayed in order to keep generating electricity as long as possible. Then when it was clear that danger levels were fast approaching, the sudden release possibly added to severity of the flooding. Could it be that pressure to keep generating electricity while most of Japan's nuclear reactors are shut down contributed to this delay? No doubt they were 'following the manual.'

A very dangerous element was added in the shape of a chain of several large, yellow, iron barges used for dredging that swept down the valley smashing bridges  and damaging dams as they went. One dam could no longer use one of it's gates after it was struck.  Local opinion was that legally these should not have been in the river in the wet summer period for this very reason - they should only have been used in the winter, when there is less of a flood risk as all the moisture falls as snow. It seems that some of the workers at one of he the dams thought there was a serious risk of a dam failing completely, as they ran away. It must have been truly terrifying, especially when the barges hit.

Bridge carrying main road up the valley smashed at Yokota

It also emerged that the council' evacuation plan did not take into account that a dam might fail. When the dams were built any houses by the original course of the river were moved to at least 3 metres above the new water level, including ours.  Residents and the council were told that a serious flood was now 'Impossible.' Again, sound familiar? So guess where the evacuation moved people to? Unaccountably, an old aged persons' home by the river, only slightly higher than the problem areas, despite the availability of various large buildings nearby in the mountains, like the Ski Centre.  If a dam had actually failed there would have been a large number of deaths. As dam failure began to look possible there was a frantic attempt to  move the people who had been taken there somewhere else. This strange plan echoes what could be called the 'evacuation into slightly less danger' policy taken by the prefectural authorities, who have built emergency housing for evacuees from inside the 20km zone around Fukushima Daichi as near as 35km away - in Iwaki.  Again, this is hard to understand when there is a choice. Iwaki is an area many families have chosen to self-evacuate away from due to the elevated radiation levels.

A home left hanging over space

Luckily, the worst did not happen, though the following weeks were very tough for everyone, camping out on their top floor without kitchens or bathrooms, and beginning to tackle the horrendous smelly mess that any flood leaves in its wake. Difficult for anyone, but particularly exhausting for the majority in their 70's and older.

For us, it was the last straw. We had been trying to hang on to living in Fukushima despite the daily worry for the long-term health of our son, because of our love for the people and the place. Not having a functioning house, and realising that the riverside location was no longer tenable in the long term, it gave us the push to make the move away that was inevitable but wrenchingly sad.

There was still no sign of the necessary radiation safeguards and protections being put in place for children, still far too big a gap between information from the authorities and that available from independent sources, still difficulty in sourcing food from other areas of Japan with much lower radiation, and still no sign of transparency or clear food labelling, just more of the same simplistic 'It's safe' propaganda. Not good enough. And when it rained, the radiation levels beneath our eves were 50% higher, meaning that releases were still continuing. After all that worry it would have been ironic indeed if it had been hydro-electricity that had finished us off.

Flood debris and wrecked graves in the family plot, Nishitani

We will probably never know the degree to which human error, both in institutional form or our own addictions to energy intensive comforts, contributed to making this, and other floods like it, worse. It was certainly the worst in living memory along the Tadami river, and some of the elders said that before the dams were built it was never as severe. Because of the way the energy market is organised, people never even saw cheaper electricity for the extra risk they accepted. That is something that could change if hard-fought reforms wanted by the majority are achieved and micro-generation owned by communities is viable. 50 years ago when the dams were built people wanted to contribute to the modernisation of Japan. For us, as for many people in Japan, the recent disasters have washed away more than just houses. They have eroded trust in the government and institutions that are supposed to protect us and our children, just as they have proved once again that individual people and communities will rally round and work wonders in supporting each other and clearing up the mess in times of dire need. If only we could get better at stopping it happening in the first place.

With especial thanks the family that provided emergency accommodation on the night of the flood and looked after my son while we were cleaning up the house. Also thanks to everyone who came to help with the clear up or checked to see that we were all right - we will never forget! We think about everyone in Kaneyama every day.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    I don't know if you will read this, but I thought it was worth posting.

    I'm sorry to hear about your experiences with the flood and earthquake. It must have been very difficult with a family.

    I am the ALT in Tadami, are you still in Kaneyama? Did someone take over from you? I have always wondered if anybody taught at the Kaneyama schools.

    Anna (