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The school beneath the wave: the unimaginable tragedy of Japan’s tsunami via The Guardian

The earthquake that struck Japan on Friday 11 March 2011 was the fourth most powerful in the history of seismology. It knocked the Earth six and a half inches off its axis; it moved Japan four metres closer to America. In the tsunami that followed, more than 18,000 people were killed. At its peak, the water was 40 metres high. Half a million people were driven out of their homes. Three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi power station melted down, spilling their radioactivity across the countryside, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The earthquake and tsunami caused more than $210bn of damage, making it the most costly natural disaster ever.

Pain and anxiety proliferated in ways that are still difficult to measure, even among people remote from the destructive events. Farmers, suddenly unable to sell their produce, killed themselves. Blameless workers in electricity companies found themselves the object of abuse and discrimination. A generalised dread took hold, the fear of an invisible poison spread through air, through water – even, it was said, through mothers’ milk.

Those who work in zones of war and disaster acquire, after a time, the knack of detachment. This is professional necessity: no doctor, aid worker or reporter can do his job if he is crushed by the spectacle of death and suffering. The trick is to preserve compassion without bearing each individual tragedy as your own; and as a foreign correspondent and sometime war reporter, I had mastered this technique. I knew the facts of what had happened, and I knew they were appalling. But at my core, I was not appalled.

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The report said that the school, the board of education and the city government were inadequately prepared for such a natural disaster. The municipal “hazard map”, which indicated areas of coast vulnerable to tsunami, did not include Kamaya. The possibility of a tsunami was not considered in compiling the school’s disaster manual, and there were no tsunami evacuation drills. No one in the municipal government had checked on the preparations taken by the school. “Teachers at the school,” the report stated, “were psychologically unable to accept that they were facing imminent danger.” If any one of these failures had not occurred, the committee concluded, the tragedy could have been avoided.

The most controversial aspects of the case – such as the silencing of the boys who wanted to run to the hill – were ignored or skated over. To the parents, the committee’s conclusions were no more than an expensive restatement of what had been obvious for more than two years. The true purpose of the exercise, they concluded, was to shut down disagreement about the tragedy by commissioning “independent” experts to produce a tepid report, which articulated mild criticisms while sparing the careers and reputations of the guilty.

Read more at The school beneath the wave: the unimaginable tragedy of Japan’s tsunami

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