Kuniko Suzuki's tsunami ride

[NOTE: If you would like to help the people of Japan, please visit the Ai Love Japan website to see how we are now providing direct aid to the people in the hardest hit areas of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures.]

On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, 73-year old Kuniko Suzuki was inside her home folding laundry and talking with her neighbors, Nobuko Kasuya and Megumi Chiba, who stopped by to visit.

At 2:46pm, the house began to shake when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake jolted the Tohoku region of Northeastern Japan, knocking out power and causing major damage to roads, buildings and infrastructure. She went outside to check to see if her grandchildren were coming home.

Soon after, the tsunami warning sounded and she was conflicted with what she should do. Wait for her grandchildren or evacuate to higher ground? She decided to evacuate because the week before they had a smaller earthquake and she remembered that the teachers kept the students at the school. She had faith that the school would take care of her grandchildren.

She called inside to Kasuya and Chiba who were busy cleaning the doll case that had fallen off the shelf. She told them “There’s no time for cleaning. A tsunami is coming. Let’s get out of here. ”Because of arthritis in her leg, Suzuki didn’t get around easily, so she couldn’t take the shortcut and had to go the long way.

There are several videos on YouTube taken from an evacuation area on a hillside above the small town of Minamisanriku. You can see entire homes floating and a cloud of dust filling the sky as the tsunami demolished everything in its path. At one point, you can see Suzuki and other residents emerge from between the houses as the floodwaters approached. “I heard crazy noises from behind while I was running. I didn’t turn around.” she said.

In one video, she says she can hear her daughter-in-law screaming, “Mother, run!” In another video, you can see the tsunami waters rush in behind her and then she disappears out of frame. What happened next only she can describe.

“The wave was very big and the wave scooped me up. The waves came from both sides and crossed and made a big tall wave. I was riding on it.” Despite being swept up by the floodwaters, she said she wasn’t scared and remained pretty calm. “I can swim very well,” she said.

“The force of the tsunami was very strong. It happened so fast. [I] rode the wave when the wave hit this area,” pointing to a pile of debris 50 yards away with her cane, “it just happened in a second. Then the roof came down.”

That roof she spoke of was floating in the floodwaters and became her life raft as it came underneath her and scooped her up and carried her to an embankment, 50 yards from where we were standing during the interview. That is where a firefighter plucked her off the roof to safety.

In the roiling sea of debris, it’s a miracle she wasn’t hurt. Not a scratch. The only blemish on her was a bruise on her arm where the firefighter grabbed her.

After she was rescued, she said she sat down on the steps that lead up to the Shizugawa High School, which currently serves as an evacuation center where she and her husband had lived for 4 months. She remembers looking out at the water and seeing houses “drifting like the leaves in the water...like bamboo leaf ships.”

Her life now is like those houses, drifting, with no final destination in sight. “I am wondering what is going to happen from now. You can’t build the houses where the tsunami hit. So we don’t have the land, and no aid from the government. I am very worried about my future. There is no plan from the local government.”

But she remains optimistic about the future. “Even though I am living in a mountain of debris, I have a strong spirit to go through this. I have to do something. I have to live. I don’t want to die like this. If there is a chance, I would like to build a house again.”

For now, she is just grateful that all of her family members are safe. Building a new house will have to wait while the government comes up with a plan for rebuilding the town of Minamisanriku.

But they are a step closer now, she and her husband won the lottery – the temporary housing lottery. Last week, they moved into a two-bedroom temporary housing unit along with five other family members. “It’s small, and it’s not like our own house, but it’s far better than staying at the emergency shelter.”