The tsunami area at Kesennuma: Then and now

Posted by in Mike's blog

Few outside Japan know the names of the cities that were devastated during The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011.  Here’s a name: Kesennuma.  I recently joined a team from Bunkyo Gospel Centre on a short trip across the country to go there and help.

Kesennuma THEN

I didn’t know it when I agreed to go, but I had seen Kesennuma before. This tsunami was the first disaster of its kind to take place where (almost) everyone had a high quality video camera ready to film. The world got a chance to see what a tsunami looks like when it hits a city. Is it one big wave? Several small ones? I highly encourage you to watch this video in its entirety:

That’s Kesennuma.  The tsunami happened at the beginning of March, and many those who had to flee to high ground and were able to had to spend the night of March 11 outside on hills, rooftops or wherever they could be not drowning. I now know firsthand that winter in this part of Japan is COLD. A huge fire broke out that night as well.

When the water subsided, there was debris. Mountains and mountains of garbage that had to be cleared – first to make roads and later to make space for rebuilding.

Kesennuma got hit with such severity because it’s a port town. It was previously known for its tuna and shark fins – and to some degree it still is, but the city has since taken on a different identity.

Kesennuma NOW

When we first arrived we couldn’t tell that any disaster had taken place. We came from the west, we travelled 12 hours through the night by car, so we came in on the side of the city that didn’t get as wet. When we continued to the areas closer to the port we saw the foundations of neighbourhoods. By “foundations” I mean only the concrete foundations where houses and stores once were.

The debris was nowhere to be seen. It’s ALL gone, save for a rice cooker I found (though we decided that it was left behind more recently by someone who didn’t care for the city’s recycling policies). There is a big landmark in the port area: a boat that landed on top of a car in several houses (pictured above). The boat destroyed a lot on its way to its current resting place. We were told that there was a bigger one that has since been cut down and removed piece by piece.


I got a sweet souvenir here – a buoy that was converted into a hanging planter. Can you find them in this photo?

We visited a place called the “revival market”, which has nothing to do with the kind of revival that we and the local church is praying for – but it was still well-named. A local guy started this market by clearing a lot of land in the port area and building a temporary mall. He invited other local business owners who had lost their shops to move into his market and set up new versions of their stores (or new stores entirely). The result is a cool place to shop or eat and hear many stories about these people who “revived” their businesses.

Some land in the city will stay vacant because government policy prohibits rebuilding in many (all?) of the areas that were completely washed out. Aside from those places where only foundations remain, the city looks rather normal. Considering the extent of the devastation, the shape Kesennuma is in is incredible!

I made sure we got a chance to visit the place where the above video was filmed. Here is what it looks like now:

That parking lot is the same one that showed cars gradually floating away in the above video.  Very, very few buildings survived in this area.

That parking lot is the same one that showed cars gradually floating away in the above video. Very, very few buildings survived in this area.

Parts of Kesennuma are now flat, but it is far from empty.  The city’s population is ~70 000.  Among them, ~3400 families still live in temporary housing in around 90 different communities within the city.  Our team didn’t go to clean up debris, we went to meet some of these people.  The next post will have some of the stories that we heard from the local people in Kesennuma and more on what our team did while we were there.

To be continued…