Teru Suzuki, 86, says only “destiny” kept her alive after last week’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered the third big tsunami in her lifetime to level her quiet fishing town in northeastern Japan.
Suzuki is one of a handful of elderly people in the area who rebuilt their lives after a magnitude 8.1 quake in 1933, a tsunami from the magnitude 9.5 Great Chilean earthquake in 1960 and a naval attack in the last days of World War II.
Relaxing in her living room when the latest earthquake struck, she didn’t think much of the tsunami warning on television until her son, who had climbed up a hill to check the coast, ran back to tell her that a huge wave was coming.
They rushed out to the back of the house to climb to higher ground, escaping death from Japan’s largest tremor on record.
“I can only think that it was destiny. Three people have died just from around here,” Suzuki said, crediting her escape to her son, a truck driver living near Tokyo who just happened to be in town for a delivery.
Japan is the most rapidly aging society on Earth and remote, rural areas like Ofunato in hard-hit Iwate Prefecture have a disproportionate percentage of elderly people.
Japanese media have carried reports of very elderly people being pulled from shattered homes by their sons or daughters, who are grandparents themselves.
A newsletter from the -Hawaii-based Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance said that although the number of people in evacuation centers has decreased as people return home or stay with relatives, “there is still a concern for the elderly and sick.”
The March 11 quake — which has left more than 21,000 people dead or missing and forced 367,000 people to live in shelters — is Japan’s worst on record.
For Suzuki, however, the tsunami generated by the Chilean earthquake thousands of kilometers across the Pacific Ocean in 1960 was a worse tragedy because it took the life of her eldest son.
Kazuo, 20 years old at the time, “tried to escape, carrying two children from the motorcycle shop he was working for, but he was washed away,” she said quietly.
Others in the area also speak from experience of coping with disasters.
One of the earliest childhood memories for Kenji Sano, 80, was when he was two and his mother wrapped him in her arms to flee the 1933 tsunami that destroyed his home in Kamaishi, 40km north of Ofunato. They ran to a temple up the street and his mother grabbed a gravestone to keep from being washed away.
Sano’s family rebuilt their home in the center of the city and rebuilt it again after the same neighborhood was leveled in an allied naval bombardment on Aug. 9, 1945 — the same day the US dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
Aid groups are stressing the need for psychological support for survivors, but for some elderly survivors, the challenge of rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of natural disasters makes them stronger.
“People ask me in town: ‘Grandma, how old are you?’ And I tell them I’m 18,” Suzuki said, using a broom to brush off the dirt on the corner of her living room ceiling that marked where the seawater had submerged her home. “I can’t get sick until I clean this up.”
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