Japanese earthquake and tsunami: Kesennuma city's Twitter feed shows how difficult it is to prepare for disaster.

Japanese earthquake and tsunami: Kesennuma city's Twitter feed shows how difficult it is to prepare for disaster.

Japanese earthquake and tsunami: Kesennuma city's Twitter feed shows how difficult it is to prepare for disaster.

Events beyond our borders.
March 17 2011 3:20 PM

The Best-Laid Plans …

A Japanese city's Twitter feed shows how difficult it is to prepare for natural disaster.

Good morning (^o^). It's a sunny morning in Kesennuma. As of 8 a.m., the temperature is -0.4 degrees Celsius. A dry weather advisory is in effect. Please take extra care with fire in the dry conditions.

On March 11, the cheerfully reassuring voice of the Kesennuma City Crisis Management Department greeted its Twitter followers, as it did every morning, with a tweet about the weather.

That morning, the population of Kesennuma, a picturesque fishing port on the jagged coast of Japan's Miyagi prefecture, was still about 73,000. Of these, almost one-third were over 65 years old.

A soldier carries an elderly woman. Click image to expand.
Residents of Kesennuma, Japan, evacuate after the tsunami

The shark fin capital of Japan, Kesennuma survived by the grace of nature, which provided the mainstays of its economy—fishing and tourism. It promoted itself as a city of "emotional excitement, with the blessings of the great outdoors." Every summer, tourists took the bait, streaming to Kesennuma to taste its waters' bounty. The city served shark fin in every imaginable combination: raw over rice, floating in soup, grilled as steak, stuffed into spring rolls, and dried as jerky.

Kesennuma's mascot and the avatar of its Twitter feed, "the child of the sea, Hoya Bohya," was a cheerful anime character with an orange sea creature for a hat, a scallop for a belt buckle, and a knife for filleting fish held triumphantly aloft like a sword.

Twitter Avatar for Kesennuma mascot.
Kesennuma's Twitter avatar

Partly light-hearted, partly deadly serious, the Crisis Management Department's regularly updated Twitter feed tells a story of what life was like in Kesennuma before it was devastated by the most powerful earthquake and tsunami ever to hit Japan. The feed began in July 2010.

Among the first tweets was an announcement of an exhibition of photographs of past tsunamis. The show featured pictures of the earthquakes and tsunamis that hit Chile in 1960 and in 2010. It was held at the city's Tsunami Experience Center, a drab series of rooms filled with videos, pictures, and descriptions of the powerful effects of tidal waves.

Later last summer, the department announced an annual local festival and warned people to take care of themselves in a heat wave:

It looks like this heat is going to continue, so eat well to keep up your strength and avoid heat stroke, and let's get through this summer!

In another tweet, the department tried a different tack:

If we assume an average of eight hours of sleep a night, we spend a third of our lives asleep and defenseless. If you think about it this way, it's clear how important earthquake prevention measures in the bedroom really are.

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In September, the department encouraged its followers to keep a bag packed with a flashlight, clothing, food, water, a radio, and batteries, as well as diapers or medicine if needed, in case of a disaster.

Not all the tweets were crisis-related. Once, the feed warned that a bear had been spotted eating corn from local farm plots. Another time, it announced the Kesennuma-and-Motoyoshi-area "local sweets" idea contest:

Seeking nominations for ideas for a new local cake. Think of a cake that's unique and represents the region and send in your entry.

In November, it reported that a regular disaster-preparedness training session would start at 6 p.m.

The nights are getting quite cold, so wear warm clothes and shoes that are easy to walk in, and come join the training session.

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The tweets paint a picture of a city that knew the dangers it faced and drilled regularly to protect itself. In 1896, the largest tsunami that had hit Japan's main island of Honshu until last week killed more than 22,000 people in the area. Another tsunami in 1933 claimed the lives of 1,522 more.

Kesennuma had installed vending machines outside government buildings that dispensed free drinks during emergencies. It had pulled its children off the beach to practice evacuations in their bathing suits, and it had taken them on field trips to the Tsunami Experience Center. It had warned its citizens of the dangers of electric heaters, influenza, hot weather, cold weather, wind, fire, lightning, tornados, waves, even of driving for too long.

At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, the city began to shake. The moment Kesennuma had been preparing for had arrived.

Large tsunami warning for the Miyagi coast evacuate to higher ground.

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That was the first tweet after the quake. Then came:

Large tsunami warning waves expected to reach 6 meters evacuate to higher ground immediately.

The tsunami has arrived, evacuate immediately to higher ground.

As the first wave tore through the city, the department's Twitter voice dutifully reported its progress. Its tweets became shorter and more desperate.

Evacuate immediately

Evacuate to higher ground without delay

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As a second wave approached Kesennuma, the department warned its followers that it would be bigger than the first.

As water continued to devour the city, the department pounded out more tweets.

Large tsunami warning evacuate immediately evacuate immediately.

The department warned residents not to approach the water even if it appeared to recede. It reported fires breaking out around the city and updated followers on their progress as the city burned.

Another tsunami is coming. Please do not leave the shelter.

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Sixty-one increasingly urgent tweets. And then, silence.

As the fires burned, the surging waters stilled, and helicopters began to appear in the skies above the city's silent remains, the benevolent and knowledgeable voice that had guided Kesennuma through drills and cake-naming contests, heat waves and cold snaps, went quiet.

Kesennuma was virtually unknown outside Japan. Suddenly, images of its flattened remains became part of the torrent of devastation flooding the world's TV screens, leaving many to wonder how these communities would emerge from this disaster.

And then, on Monday, March 14, a voice rose from the ruins of the city.

This is the Kesennuma City Crisis Management Department in Miyagi prefecture. We have resumed the Twitter feed.

Tweets translated from the Japanese by Alexandra Harney.