News & Stories


Tōhoku Tsunami 2011 – As it happened

by Rod Thomas

There was a roar and rumble and the pheasants squawked and the dogs barked. The car started to bounce up and down and the tall pine trees swayed and rocked violently. This was a big earthquake! I waited for it to stop but instead the shaking increased so I ran back up the concrete steps to our house. All the while the roaring got louder, and running was difficult, like running on the deck of a rolling ship. Glenda had turned off the gas in the kitchen and was outside with the kettle still in her hand looking up at our old wooden house as it swayed back and forth. Each time it looked it like was going to collapse. After about four minutes the shaking gradually slowed and stopped.
We went inside to see bookshelves and cupboards had toppled over and spilled books, cassette tapes and crockery into piles on the floor, but no serious damage. The log fire was still burning in the grate so we put it out and rushed 80 m to the nearby cliff to see the 6m tsunami that was being predicted over the loud speakers that are dotted along the coast.

A loud Japanese voice was repeatedly warning everyone to get off the beach and escape to high ground.

Police cars with lights flashing and sirens blaring were speeding up and down the coast road making sure everybody had got the message. We saw small boats fleeing the fishing harbour and a tanker trying to get past the distant breakwater off Sendai port in order to head for deep water. We took some pictures of the cliff falls but there was no sign of the tsunami. Another false alarm no doubt! After 30 min of stamping our feet against the cold wind, the visibility grew worse because it had started to snow. We went back to the house and started to stacking up the books.

We had come to Japan 25 years earlier and after the usual two years language study had worked in churches in various cities. For 10 years we had been pastoring a small church in the south of city of Sendai. We had arrived back from home assignment in South Africa and UK two weeks earlier. We were staying at Takayama, a holiday place for missionaries by the sea at Shichigahama in Miyagi Ken. Some years ago we bought one of these old wooden cabins from our mission, OMF International, because they could not afford the maintenance, and each holiday period we would come here with our family. In two week’s time we were due to move to a flat near the church building in the south of Sendai. Early that morning I had spoken at the Tohoku Gakuin service to 1100 middle and high school boys and taught an English class in the church and was looking forward to fixing the gate to the property now I was business manager of Takayama. I was down at the car park about to load some tools into the car when the earthquake struck at 2.46 p.m. on 11th March.

My day-dream was interrupted as we heard shouting and a tremendous roar. Our neighbour Mrs Miyaji was shouting for us to come. A huge tsunami had roared in from the ocean. We ran down to the car park to see a mass of black water rushing in. There was an over-powering smell of rotten eggs. Above all there was the terrible noise of crunching buildings. The car park is about seven metres above sea level and our green Subaru car was floating around in over one metre of water along with the toolshed that had broken loose from its foundations. (News reports said that Sendai harbour had been hit by a ten metre tsunami). I took some pictures and then ran back up to the house to get some ropes to secure the car so it would not be swept away. These took some time to find and when I got back the water was receding and our car was being carried further into the small ravine that goes down to the sea. I put two ropes onto the front wheel but it was too late: the car was settling on its side.

Just then there was a call from across the fence and I saw the worried faces of neighbours Mrs Aikawa and her 77-year-old mother who were trying to get through the gate so they could reach high ground. Their ground floor had been flooded and they had taken refuge upstairs while the water swirled below and they were in a hurry to be let in before the next tsunami came. The gate was blocked with vegetation and after clearing it, I told them to go up to our house where Glenda would give them a cup of tea. Then the second tsunami came with a roar and reached to where our car had been dumped (this one was six metres high). Debris-filled black water rushed down the road to the sea. Then I went to the cliff again to look and the seabed was visible for two km out to sea where the water is normally three to four metres deep. Then the third tsunami came. It was small and did not go over the sea wall. Visibility was better and the sun had come out.

Hanabuchihama (to the east of our hill) was devastated: hardly a house remained where there had been a fish factory, shops and many nice homes. Instead there was a debris-filled lake. The roofs of houses had been washed into rice fields along with cars, broken pine trees and boats. Looking west toward Sendai the skyline looked like a WWII air raid with many fires and columns of black smoke. The seaside village of Shobutahama (to the west of the hill) was flattened, only foundations remained where houses once stood and the second storeys of houses were sitting disconnected in the roads. Looking out to sea there were many containers floating and it seemed that a container ship had lost its load when it was hit by the wave. There was even a burning wooden house floating three kilometres offshore.

It was getting dark and I went back to help my wife Glenda look after our guests. It was very cold and we lit two wood fires which provided some comfort to our guests who had waded through flood water to reach us. Electricity and water were off and there was no cell phone reception. We lit some candles. Our gas oven however was working. We unpacked the ‘earthquake kit’ which had a small radio and listened to the news. It was an 8.8 quake on the Japanese scale (later upgraded to 9.0) and the wave had hit the whole of the Japanese Pacific coast. We tried to chat to our guests. Mrs Aikawa was anxious about her husband and children and kept trying to phone her husband. Glenda make a chicken and broccoli pie and put it out along with soup, salad, cake, rice etc but they hardly touched it. Mrs Aikawa’s elderly mother was cheerful and talkative. I found some drinking water we had stored. I prayed for them and the safety of their families and we went to bed early. We put the two Mrs Aikawas in the downstairs bedroom and Mrs Miyaji went back to her house on the cliff.

We tried to sleep though after-shocks continued throughout the night. We thought on the events of the day. If the tsunami had come two hours earlier, I would have have been caught driving on the coastal road and Glenda would have been caught taking her walk on the beach. Surely we had been brought back from South Africa and spared for a purpose! We gave thanks for our deliverance.

Our fitful sleep was disturbed by loud booms rumbling like thunder. At about 10pm the petrol/oil depot connected to the oil refinery about five kilometres away to the west, and between us and Sendai, had blown up. I got dressed and went out on the hill. Huge flames were leaping into the night sky and a column of black smoke ascended like the smoke from a furnace. Fortunately there was no wind, but the air smelled of burning oil.

We woke at about 5.30 a.m. and made tea. The Aikawas too were up early and the younger one went down to her house to get her mother’s diabetes medicine. There were still many announcements on the loud speakers warning us not to leave high ground in case of further tsunamis. We spent the day surveying the devastation and trying to cope with what had happened. We put out buckets to catch the snow melt water to use for washing, washing-up, and flushing the toilets. I also tried to contact family by phone but there was no reception. There would no further reception, and no electricity or water in our area for another month. We made sure we had firewood and tidied up. The sky was full of army helicopters carrying rescue teams to people trapped under their houses or in some cases on roofs or in cars. Later the tsunami warnings were lifted and people emerged from the emergency evacuation centres to view their destroyed homes.

The first person I met was Mr Aizawa. He asked for a spanner to set up a shelter made from scaffolding. He and his wife were pulling a few belongings out of the mud. But their house had vanished. Next to them was Mr Ogino who works for the Town Office. His house was recently strengthened and was still standing though his daughter watching from a nearby hill saw the wave go right over the roof. He and his father were trying to salvage sodden clothes and other belongings. He told me sadly that he lost his two kayaks, one of which he bought for 400,000 yen three years ago. Never mind that his house has been gutted by the wave, he was more interested in his sport: a typical guy! (Later his kayaks turned up undamaged having been deposited on a hillside far away). Next to them were an elderly couple called the Mishimas. They were obviously traumatised but put a brave face on it and said they were just grateful to be alive. I spent some time helping him search for his blood pressure medicine. Eventually we found it under a pile of mud, sticks and sodden blankets. He was so happy! Later I visited the local carpenter, Mr Endo. His home had been washed away. He was sitting disconsolately with his wife and son outside the shell of his workshop and his timber, tools, trucks had all been destroyed. He borrowed some tools. Much later we sent volunteer teams who washed the mud off his timber and he did a brisk business repairing damaged homes. All these relationships and many more were the direct result of the disaster and many led to fruitful witnessing opportunities and talks about the gospel.

The following Sunday (13th) we left very early for church in Glenda’s little kei car. A trip that normally took 30 mins took two and a half hours as we drove through the devastation: muddy roads with cars and lorries piled three deep. Only about six had come to worship by the start at 10.30 a.m.. We started anyway and I spoke on Heb 12:28 on ‘God’s Unshakeable Kingdom’. By the end of the service we were 11, whereas normally we are 35 adults. Glenda had cooked up two kilograms of mince and we ate that and some took it back to their families. The church had running water but there was no electricity anywhere in Sendai. We praise the Lord that not one of the church members or their families were lost to the disaster.

We knew that our family and OMF would be worrying about us and we had not been able to tell anyone that we were okay. On the way back from church we briefly got cell phone reception and called Esther in South Africa with a request to tell everyone that we were okay. After that reception was lost. In disasters rumours run rife. People back home had worried that we had not survived and later heard that our house had been destroyed or that we were pleading for rescue. None of these were true. We were so grateful that the Lord allowed us to live and work in such momentous times. The way back home from church took even longer. There were long lines of people queueing outside shops and cars outside petrol stations. We got stuck in one of these.

The pressing need among the town people was drinking water. I also queued for several hours to get our allowance of 10 litres per day per household from the town water truck. We collected water for others too in our neighbourhood and once we queued for a long time in a blizzard. While praying for God to lead me into a ministry to tsunami victims, I had the idea to offer lifts to those who had collected their water. Some had to walk three or four kilometres to their homes. They were very grateful and I had good opportunity to tell them the gospel.

Those who had lost their homes spent the first three months in evacuation centres. These were community centres and other public buildings and they were cared for by the town council. Because our freezer was slowly defrosting we gave away a lot of this to the nearest centre. I tried to visit everyday and find what they needed. Some families preferred to stay in their cars, while others were camping. The Lord was present in this ministry. For example one old lady was very cold and had lost all her spare clothes in the tsunami so I promised to bring her a jacket. Glenda found a suitable-sized one but foolishly I had forgotten to ask her name. How could I find her among the hundreds of evacuees? I prayed as I drove up to the evacuation centre. Who was the very first person I saw when entered? Mrs Sato! She was delighted with her new coat. Another problem was petrol. All fuel stations were empty or closed in the Sendai area. Though I had drained the lawnmowers after 10 days my fuel gauge was almost on empty but I was determined not to curtail my ministry just to save fuel. Surely Matt 6:33 would apply to me? But how and when? I would keep my spirits up by singing hymns and try not to look anxiously at the needle. Later that evening I heard news that a truck was coming from Chiba to Miyagi and they were bringing me some cans of petrol. This was amazing divine provision! Just in time!

After three months the survivors who had no homes to go to were moved out of evacuation centres to prefab housing. Our ministry to these started with mobile cafés, mini-concerts etc in May 2011 and has been continuing ever since. Sendai Evangelical Christian Church made it their main evangelistic ministry and we have reached almost all the temporary housing sites in the greater Sendai area. The church members rose to the occasion convinced that God had saved them for “such a time as this”, they helped in the relief work and evangelism and grew spiritually as a result. One of them Mr Nishimura is now a full time evangelist to tsunami evacuees. We hope that the disaster will result in the planting of two new churches in the Sendai area, though we are praying for many more, indeed ‘A Church in Every Temporary Housing Site’.

In the Great East Japan Disaster over 19,000 people lost their lives, 340,000 were made homeless, 190,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged and 230,000 vehicles were destroyed. The tsunami reached 40 m in height in some areas and went up to 10 km inland. It was the worst Japanese earthquake and tsunami ever and the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the history of the world. May God save by the gospel of Jesus Christ at least same number as those who lost their lives!

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