Japan school a sanctuary on hill above obliterated city

Tsunami survivors shelter in unheated rooms

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RIKUZEN-TAKATA, Japan

In a school perched on a bluff, elderly residents take turns climbing up and down a circular stairwell, strengthening their knees in case they have to run from a tsunami generated by aftershocks that continually jolt northeastern Japan.

Its stairwells and hallways lined with cedar, the Rikuzen-Takata No. 1 Junior High School is one of the most beautiful and well-kept in Japan, especially in contrast to the obliterated city below, where the March 11 tsunami shredded every wooden structure.

More than 1,000 survivors are crammed into unheated classrooms and a gymnasium, but the school bears a remarkable freshness, making it one of the most well-stocked evacuation centers in the northeast, where Japan’s National Police Agency says at least 160,000 survivors are being sheltered.

“I almost feel at home here,” says Hiraushi Yoshitaka, 81, sitting cross-legged amid a pile of donated blankets in the gymnasium. “I used to be a science teacher here until I retired, and I ran the table tennis club. But of course, this is not my home.”

As many as half a million people were left homeless after the tsunami, which police say destroyed at least 200,000 buildings, including perhaps 10,000 in Rikuzen-Takata. Relief workers and municipal officials are only just beginning to set up temporary housing here and near other shelters across the disaster zone.

Demand far outweighs supply. On Tuesday, 1,160 people applied for the chance to move into 36 temporary pre-fab dorm rooms erected this week in the dusty schoolyard. The rooms can house only two or three people each, so more than 1,000 evacuees will have to continue living on school floors with no running water or heat.

The winners of the lottery can move Sunday, say municipal officials, who hope to build more temporary housing in coming months.

Mr. Yoshitaka and his wife, Kazuko, 83, say they would rather move to Tokyo to stay with their daughters. “We’re too old to move back to the city below and rebuild,” Mrs. Yoshitaka says. “Young people can try if they want, but not us.”

The Yoshitakas were enjoying their retirement in this seaside city when the magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit. They remembered the 1960 tsunamis that crossed the Pacific Ocean after a quake in Chile, and knew they had to get to high ground quickly. Many others spent valuable minutes trying to pack up clothing and valuables.

They summoned enough inner strength to climb up to the hilltop school just in time to escape the 30-foot high tsunami, which killed many still in their homes, offices or vehicles stuck in a traffic.

At the junior high school, they found students who had performed their graduation ceremony just that morning, but now were gathered in the forest to watch the horrific scene of destruction unfolding below.

Since then, the Yoshitakas have been lying on the gym floor, with little privacy other than makeshift cardboard dividers demarcating their “property.” Buses last week took some evacuees to their first bath in two weeks, and some have managed to wash clothes and hang them to dry in sunlit classrooms.

People of all ages doze whenever they can, night or day. But most have not had a good night’s sleep in three weeks.

“It’s hard to really sleep in here,” Mrs. Yoshitaka says. “People are talking or snoring. It’s very cold on our old bones at night, even with all these blankets.”

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