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Seaside town moves to higher ground

TOKYO >> Taking heed of the devastation caused by the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region of Japan, one town is taking steps to move to higher ground to protect itself against future tsunami. Their efforts have been called “advance recovery.”

In Kushimoto, a town of about 16,000 people at the southernmost point of Honshu, departments responsible for disaster response are migrating, to mixed response from residents.

The concern: A tsunami generated by an earthquake at the nearby Nankai Trough could arrive at Kushimoto in as little as three minutes, with a surge that could reach a height of more than 55 feet.

The downtown Kushimoto district is about 10 feet above sea level. Most of the area is designated as a “difficult tsunami evacuation district,” where people would be unable to flee to safety before a tsunami arrives.

Kushimoto was created when the towns of Kushimoto and Koza merged in 2005. The municipal government had planned to build an integrated town hall, hospital and fire department on higher ground to avert damage from a tsunami. That left residents wondering if officials were seeking only to save themselves.

Although a tsunami caused by a 1946 earthquake did kill people in the area, memories of the tragedy had faded when the 2011 earthquake hit.

The Japan Coast Guard, a local social welfare council and others asked to be relocated to the Sangodai district, where the town was proposing the development of a disaster response site in an area nearly 175 feet above sea level.

The Kushimoto police station also established an alternate command post there in 2014, for use during a disaster.

Residents too feel a sense of urgency. Masato Sakanari, 65, decided to move from the Kushi-moto district for his family.

Sakanari recounted watching television coverage with his father of the tsunami ravaging the Tohoku region. “If a tsunami ever comes, run away without me,” he recalled his father saying.

Sakanari built a new house in Sangodai in 2014. “I can sleep peacefully, unlike before,” he said.

After the 2011 earthquake, interest in residential lots in Sangodai surged, and the town’s land development corporation sold the last of about 160 lots in December 2017.

But there isn’t a plan in place, or the space, to relocate the entire town of Kushimoto.

“We haven’t found a solution for protecting residents,” said a disaster-response official.

Some older residents don’t want to leave.

“I have no intention to move,” said an 82-year-old widow, adding that she values being able to visit graves and talk to other women of her generation.

In areas close to Sangodai, evacuation routes have been built, and communication has started between residents of the two towns. Yet evacuating the elderly is a challenge.

“Relocations to higher ground disperse the functions of a town, which could reduce preparedness against disasters in areas where elderly people have been left behind,” said Takaaki Kato, a specialist in social safety systems at the University of Tokyo. “It is important for residents to discuss how to balance daily life with disaster preparedness.”

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