This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on November 17, 2014
A road in a devastated town on the day of the Great East Japan Earthquake, March 11, 2011.
The same spot just a few days later. The road has been cleared.
“I was so relieved to know I could drive anywhere again.”
It was thanks to the efforts of local people that restoration work like this was carried out so quickly after the earthquake.
Today's reporter is journalist Bonnie Waycott.
“The months immediately after March 11th brought to the forefronts some incredible stories of resilience and determination, as Japan quickly begun its recovery efforts. One example of such recovery efforts is the rebuilding of roads. How was this accomplished despite such chaos and what challenges did the people face? In this episode, we will take a look.”
(Bonnie Waycott: Reporter)
The city of Miyako in Iwate Prefecture. With a population of around 57,000, it is the prefecture’s largest coastal city.
The fishing industry thrives here. It also functions as a strategic transport hub.
Two national highways converge on Miyako.
Second in size only to Hokkaido, Iwate is a huge prefecture with 1,000-meter mountain ranges stretching from north to south. For this reason, there are only seven major roads connecting its inland areas with the coast. And National Highway 45 runs north to south along the coast.
Miyako is where National Highway 45 connects with National Highway 106 running from west to east. These two roads provide a lifeline for the 70,000 or so people who live in the area around Miyako.
“Routes 106 and 45 are vital to us. Products are transported along them to the cities to be sold, propping up people’s livelihoods.”
These two roads meet right in the heart of Miyako, at the Tsukiji Intersection near the City Government Office.
National Highway 45 becomes an elevated overpass beyond Miyako Long Bridge, so the intersection is the only place where the two roads actually converge.
“I traveled along this road to get to Miyako City after a two hour journey from Morioka. And right here where I'm standing, it connects with route 45 and goes on into the city center of Miyako. It's still the morning commute so there are lots of cars around and seeing this many cars today really tells me just how important the roads are to the people of Miyako.”
On March 11, 2011, a massive tsunami surged into Miyako, and Tsukiji Intersection was inundated.
This video of Highway 45 taken from the City Office by a fixed-point camera captures the horrendous state at the intersection.
Itaru Suzuki, the person now responsible for managing highway 45, was speechless when he saw these images. He was at a branch office up on a hill at the time.
“A staff member watching the monitor called us over. We couldn’t believe what we saw: a fishing boat was swept under the overpass, traveling along Route 45 toward the city center. We were all completely dumbstruck with our jaws hanging wide open.”
(Itaru Suzuki: Chief, Miyako Branch Maintenance Office)
After the tsunami withdrew, the roads were covered in deep mud, and blocked by displaced cars and houses.
Tsukiji Intersection had been rendered unusable, so the city’s vital functions were devastated.
The prefecture’s biggest hospital to the north of the town...
...and the Taro District further north was almost inaccessible.
This was a severe hindrance to the rescue efforts of the Self-Defense Forces, the police and the fire department who converged on Miyako from the inland areas.
Itaru realized that the intersection had to be cleared as soon as possible. He immediately asked for help from a local construction company he regularly worked with.
Hiroya Ueno works for that construction company as a deputy manager. Since before the earthquake, he had been asked by the Miyako Branch Maintenance Office, to oversee the clearing and restoration of the national highways in the event of a major disaster. Hiroya has been involved with work on roads for more than 15 years. He realized it was their mission to restore the Tsukiji Intersection as soon as possible.
“The situation was that none of the emergency vehicles or the vehicles that bring supplies could get through unless the roads were cleared of debris. So that was the first thing that had to be done, and we were determined to do it.”
(Hiroya Ueno: Deputy Manager)
But all they could that day was make preparations. A major tsunami warning was still in place, and the safety of the employees could not be guaranteed.
The following day, March 12, 2011, Hiroya gathered the necessary heavy machinery and headed to the disaster-stricken area. However, the major tsunami warning had still not been lifted.
Itaru, the man responsible for managing the highways, could not order the work to begin, either.
“I basically had no attention of starting while the warning was in place. I wasn’t going to ask the workers to begin, not at that stage.”
Meanwhile, the extent of the damage around the city was gradually becoming apparent.
A report came in from a shelter saying that they would soon run out of water.
Reports came in from isolated villages that low-lying areas had mostly been wiped out.
The situation was very tense. The roads had to be cleared as soon as possible, because so many lives depended on it.
Itaru asked Hiroya and other workers if they could make a start on the work.
And Hiroya stood up to the challenge.
“I wanted the road cleared by the end of the day, so it was our last chance. I asked everyone, and we began the work.”
While the major tsunami warning was still in place, two local construction companies came to the rescue providing two types of heavy machinery and their operators.
One was the backhoe. They are used mainly for digging dirt.
The other was the loader. They are used for loading trucks, or in winter for clearing snow.
This is how the work began.
First, the backhoes moved all the debris piled on the road to the side. Then the loaders started removing the sand, gravel and mud left behind.
Hiroya knew from past experience that they could clear the road using these two types of machinery.
However, they were beset by a series of unexpected problems.
Kazuro Igarashi was one of the operators. He is a veteran operator with 40 years’ experience.
He was apprehensive about doing something completely different from the normal construction work.
To improve efficiency, it was necessary to destroy obstacles before moving them to the side. But even rubble belongs to someone. It could not be destroyed without a moment’s thought.
“As much as possible, I moved things without damaging them. It may sound strange, but a part of me wouldn’t allow me to treat everything roughly.”
(Kazuro Igarashi: Construction Department)
In particular, the operators were reluctant to destroy whole houses that had been dislodged. There was even the possibility that survivors were still inside them. Although the police checked them first, there was a limit to what they could do among the piles of rubble, and so they had to work very carefully.
In addition, the houses contained the memories and treasures of the owners.
“Checking to see if there were any people inside was the most important thing, but there were also photos and many other things that were valuable to the families. I thought about recovering everything inside the houses.”
Hiroya, who was in charge of the on-site operations, laid down three rules for the workers to follow.
“I told them there were three rules. The first was not to smile while taking a break. The second was to report all valuables found, even if it was just a small amount of money. And, although it was very important to carry on working, that wasn’t the only thing that they had to do. The third rule was to help any local people who were in need.”
It was a race against time. The work was carried out carefully on-site while showing consideration for the people around.
“There is a great risk of houses collapsing, so please take adequate precautions during aftershocks.”
(TV News broadcast)
In addition, there were numerous aftershocks while they worked.
However, due to the vibrations from the engines of the machines, the operators did not notice the aftershocks.
Itaru normally lets his employees get on with their work on their own, but this time it was different.
“I was getting everyone to work under conditions in which I couldn’t guarantee their safety, so I felt the need to be with them on-site.”
He stayed on-site, and informed the operators about aftershocks, so that they could prepare for evacuation to escape a tsunami.
He also secured two shelters ready for emergency evacuations. One was a five-story building on the road they were working on, and the other was the six-story city office building. Both were undamaged from the third floor up, and Itaru negotiated a deal allowing them to use them as shelters. This allowed the on-site workers to concentrate on their work. But ahead of them lay their biggest challenge.
It was a fishing boat that had been swept there by the tsunami. It was around 10 meters in length and weighed about 5 tons.
The boat was straddling two lanes, blocking the key intersection where Highways 106 and 45 met.
Vehicles would not be able to pass unless the boat was removed.
But it was huge and heavy, making it extremely difficult to move using the equipment they had.
But something had to be done to connect the two highways. Hiroya came up with a completely different idea.
“I realized that moving the boat was going take a long time. So I tried to think of another solution to the problem. I decided that it would be quicker to clear a way for Highway 45 through the Miyako City office parking lot.”
It was a plan to establish a new section of road through the parking lot with access to both highways.
But turning a place that was not formerly a road into a highway was an emergency measure.
It required a permit from the Government Office. Itaru went to the office to negotiate a deal.
“They weren’t very happy, but they realized it was the best option. They had no choice in order to let emergency vehicles through, so that’s how the Highways 106 and 45 were re-connected.”
Thanks to the brilliant idea of using a parking lot as a road, they were able to create a single lane joining the two highways while there was still daylight.
The Self-Defense Forces came to the rescue from Morioka just before the road was opened. They were surprised to find that the roads had already been opened up.
“I knew this area had been hit hard, so I expected to find a lot more rubble, over a longer distance. I was thinking we would need to deploy our power shovels and work with everyone here. But we were told that they were almost finished, and it was true. They only had about 50 meters left to clear.”
(Mitsuhiro Sato: 387 Engineer Company Commander)
That night, the major tsunami warning was finally removed. The Self-Defense Forces were able to make their way quickly to the villages in the north.
The city’s northern route had finally been reopened, but there was still one more road that had to be opened up.
It was the southern route. There were around 20,000 people living in the neighboring town of Yamada-machi.
The town had been hit by the tsunami, and many fires afterwards, so there was an urgent need for emergency vehicles to get there.
But for emergency vehicles to pass through Miyako to get to Yamada-machi, even if they were to take a route through the mountains, there was a need to clear a path through an intersection in the Kanehama District in the south of the city.
However, the level of destruction around the intersection in Kanehama had rendered it unrecognizable even to those very familiar with it.
“At first, I thought I’d come to the wrong place. I couldn’t even see where the road had been.”
(Kazuro Igarashi: Construction Department)
There was not only a lot of rubble; the earthquake had caused the ground to subside. And a lot of water from the tsunami remained.
Serious work began on this route on the following day, March 13th. This time it was also a battle against large amounts of water.
Moreover, the area was still being scoured by firefighters and the police, looking for bodies.
There was the danger of the heavy equipment damaging bodies.
It was a mentally stressful worksite; something the operators had never experienced before.
Kazuro Igarashi continued to work in silence, but a thought crossed his mind.
“Some of the younger guys found the work just too heartbreaking, and I heard that some of them couldn’t continue. But I carried on working, telling myself that by finding the bodies I was performing a kind of memorial service, and I had to do that.”
While the machine operators worked on the front line of the disaster-stricken area, there were others who provided support behind the scenes.
One of them works at Yamauchi Shoten, next to Hiroya’s company.
At that time, Sawako Yamauchi continued making rice balls for all the people working on-site.
But how did she make so many rice balls while power outages continued immediately after the earthquake?
And here is the answer...
She made a fire using a woodstove, and cooked rice in a huge pot.
“How much rice can it cook?”
“2 ‘sho’, one gallon.”
“How many rice balls can you make from 2 ‘sho’ of rice?”
“22 or 23.”
When she ran out of rice, local farmers donated more.
Sawako says she made rice balls for several dozen workers. She wanted to do it to help the local community.
“The roads in Suehiro-cho were covered in mud. You couldn’t walk along them. Then I heard that Kariya Construction had brought in some heavy machinery to clear the roads, and I was so glad to be able to help in some way!”
In addition to food, fuel was also a necessity. The machinery needed at least one refueling per day, but the earthquake had rendered all the nearby gas stations unusable.
Managing Director Ayato Yoshida was the man who came to the rescue. He first tried to obtain fuel from an inland gas station that had survived the earthquake.
But it was no easy feat. Most gas stations today rely on electricity to pump the fuel from an underground tank. But the blackout after the earthquake prevented operation of the pumps.
However, they realized they still had a tool they had been using until about 10 years ago.
(Ayato Yoshida: Managing Director)
“Is this it?”
This was the kind of hand pump they used.
“You put the hose into this metal drum, and then…you turn the handle like this.”
This company has a history of handling road construction deep in the mountains.
They used to transport fuel to the construction site in metal drums, and use hand pumps to refuel their equipment.
“How long does it take to fill this drum?”
“Well, more than five or ten minutes. But my employees used to transport fuel in these metal drums, so they were used to it. I wasn’t particularly worried about it.”
Refueling was carried out by a total of 30 people or so. Many people joined forces to clear a path for the rescue teams.
Just two days after the earthquake, March 13 2011, the southern route was finally cleared.
It had taken only two days to restore the major traffic arteries centered on Miyako.
The city could now gradually start to function again.
The region’s biggest hospital immediately felt the effect.
Few patients had come in on the day of the earthquake, but now the hospital gradually filled up.
“There were very few patients to begin with, but we started taking in more from the next day. On the day of the earthquake, it was impossible to walk, let alone drive, along the roads. There was rubble everywhere. Then the roads were cleared, and I think that’s why people started coming in.”
(Taku Okuguchi: Doctor)
The local construction company team continued clearing the roads for several months.
What drove Hiroya on was his sense of mission to save as many lives as possible.
“I don’t think anyone thought of it as a job. At a time like this, you just have to clear the main roads. It’s only common sense to do everything you can. Stopping or giving up was not an option for me.”
(Hiroya Ueno: Deputy Manager)
Itaru was the man who supervised the restoration of the roads in Miyako. He is now stationed in Sendai, where he is involved in the restoration of the entire Tohoku region. He says the experience remains etched in his memory.
“You can’t do anything on your own. However, with the help of the local residents, the police, firefighters, and also private contractors like Hiroya, we somehow managed to face that particular situation and do all the things that had to be done. We managed to stick with it to the end.”
(Itaru Suzuki: Chief, Miyako Branch Maintenance Office)
Employees of local construction companies put their heart and soul into restoring the roads of Miyako.
Hiroya’s company had reason to celebrate this year.
They recruited a new employee for the first time since the earthquake. Yusuke Okuchi witnessed the work of the construction company after the earthquake, and decided to join.
“Everyone was in a state of panic. But those people from the construction company continued working, even with the constant threat of another tsunami. Seeing them not only got me interested in construction work, but it made me want to join the company myself.”
(Yusuke Okuchi: New Employee)
“Immediately after the disaster, the construction workers here took action and went all out to repair the roads. This is one of the very first steps that was taken to restore Miyako City in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. Having seen the road reconstruction process up closed I could see just how much work is involved and the great responsibilities that the workers bear. I was touched by their dedication and their unprecedented effort is inspiring. Today their work continues, as they closely monitor the areas affected and do all they can to improve the roads of Miyako city.”
There was some criticism of the decision to work close to the sea while the major tsunami warning remained in place. But these people decided to take action fully understanding the risks involved. Driving them on was a deep desire to help their fellow citizens living along the Iwate coast.