Ukedo Elementary School is located a mere 200 meters (220 yards) from the Pacific Ocean; a wonderful place for an elementary school, with uninterrupted views, and only a short walk to the beach. Of course, this is also why it was such a dangerous place to be on March 11th 2011. The school gym is shaped like a ship, to reflect the main industry of the town. The top of the gym wall marks the waterline of how far up the tsunami reached. A clock on the wall, radio-controlled, is stopped at the time the tsunami hit, when the power went out.
When the earthquake struck on March 11th, there were around 80 pupils at the school, aged 6-12. The staff followed the official guidelines for what to do during an earthquake, but then came the tsunami warning. There were around 50 minutes between the earthquake hitting and the tsunami that followed. Because it’s such a rare event, there was no official procedure for what to do. As schools in Japan are designated evacuation centres, the suggestion was to keep the children inside. Thankfully, the staff at the school ignored this, and took all 80 students to the nearby hill, Ohirayama, two kilometres away. They knew the way to National Route 6, and climbed over the hill to reach it. Once there, a large truck urged the staff and children onto its cargo bed, and so everyone from the school was successfully evacuated to Namie Town Hall before the tsunami hit. They stood in safety as water destroyed the landscape.
Many of the children lost their families in the tsunami, but because of the brave and intelligent actions of the staff at Ukedo Elementary, not one child or staff member from the school died in the disaster. The following day, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant exploded and the town of Namie began its evacuation.
Listening to this story whilst staring at the now-empty school is simultaneously difficult and heart-warming. There were other places along the east coast where the story ended far more tragically. All of the damaged buildings along the coastline are gradually being demolished, but it is hoped that Ukedo will be left as a monument to independent thought, common sense, and the bravery of the staff and students on that day.