Tsunami survivors take another step forward


Toshie Nakajo, 60, is wiping tears from her eyes. She has just received the keys to her new home for the months ahead, one of the government-built prefabricated temporary houses erected on a sports field in Asahi in Chiba prefecture on the east coast of Japan.

Japanese Red Cross is providing Mrs Nakajo with a set of basic appliances to help her and her family get back on their feet; a washing machine, fridge, rice cooker, water thermos, microwave and TV. Red Cross volunteers Kikuko Tanaka and Toshiko Unakami are on hand to help Mrs Nakajo move from the nearby evacuation centre, where she’s lived for the past two months, into the house.

"I'm just so grateful to Red Cross and everyone for their help and support," Mrs Nakajo said. "We were so worried about what we were going to put in the house because we lost everything."

They’re tears of joy, but also a mix of sadness and relief, remembering March 11 and how close she and her family came to not surviving.

In the hours after the earthquake, not one but three tsunami waves threatened Asahi on the Boso Peninsula.

Mrs Nakajo was at home with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Her mother-in-law hadn’t been well and was in bed, the sister-in-law alongside her, on the bed.

"The first wave came up to our knees," she said. "After a while, it started to recede."

"Later, we could see the second wave out at sea. It went in a different direction and missed us."

Thinking they may have escaped the danger, the three women got the shock of their lives when about an hour later a wall of water smashed down their front door and started filling up their house.

"We had no idea it was coming," she said. "There was no noise at all. It was silent."

"The water was rising so quickly that everything started floating, even the bed with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law in it."

A side of the house collapsed and floated away. The three women clung to the three-sided shell as the wave ripped it from its foundations and surged it inland.

"It was terrifying," she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. "We could see everything that was happening outside around us."

Mrs Nakajo and the women saw a large pile of debris heading for their house, the side where there was no wall. Just metres from smashing into the debris, a shipping container floated by and knocked a corner of the house, turning it sideways. The debris missed the house by metres.

“We were very lucky,” she said.

Mrs Nakajo tried her mobile. It worked, and she rang emergency services, which rescued the three women.

She was reunited with her husband and son at an evacuation centre. Mr Nakajo had been swept into the water. He grabbed on to the front door of a fish shop as it floated by. It saved his life.

“I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I always thought these type of disasters happened to somebody else, that they’d never happen to me. When I’m in a situation like this I really appreciate Red Cross and everything everyone has done. I escaped only with the clothes I was wearing. We have lost everything.”

Mrs Tanaka, 70, has been a Japanese Red Cross volunteer for the past 11 years. Since March 12, she and Mrs Unakami, 68, have been working at local evacuation centres at a primary school, the local municipal office and a gymnasium, helping with meals, comforting survivors and cleaning.

“The toughest work we have done was carrying buckets of water to the third floor of an evacuation centre to clean the toilets,” Mrs Tanaka said.

“There was no running water and we had to carry the buckets of water up the stairs. The toilets also were often very dirty because there was no water for flushing and some of the people had been sick.”

Mrs Tanaka said people in evacuation centres were “very happy and relieved to see us”.

“They were waiting for us,” she said. “When they see our Red Cross apron and that we are volunteers they say ‘we are so relieved to see you’. This makes us very happy. We hope that we can be a little bit of a help.”

Photo 1: Red Cross volunteers Kikuko Tanaka, right, and Toshiko Unakami help Toshie Nakajo, centre, move into the purpose-built temporary house.

Photo 2: Red Cross volunteers Kikuko Tanaka, right, and Toshiko Unakami … “we hope we can be a little bit of help”.