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Japan Earthquake: 4 Years On, an Old School Finds New Hope

Japan Tsunami 4 Years Later

It’s been four years since a 9.0 earthquake hit Japan, triggering a tsunami that ravaged communities and caused a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As the magnitude of devastation became clear, the American public gave generously to help the people of Japan, making the American Red Cross one of the largest private, international contributors to the response.

Since that time, the global Red Cross network has been instrumental in rebuilding hospitals, medical facilities, kindergartens and public housing. Osawa Nursery School in Yamada town is one of many places that has gotten back on its feet, thanks to the generosity of people around the world.

It was early afternoon on March 11, 2011 when the earthquake and tsunami struck Yamada. School principal Noriko Kawabata understood the tsunami risk, having lived by the sea in Yamada her whole life. She and the other teachers immediately scrambled to evacuate the terrified children, who were waking up from their afternoon naps.

“I was the last one out of the building. I had to make sure that no child had been left behind, and as I rushed after the children up to the evacuation center, I could hear this loud roar behind me. I did not look back, but I knew what it was,” Principal Kawabata said with a shudder.

Osawa Nursery School was damaged beyond repair and the principal realized that the workplace to which she had devoted 39 years of her life was gone.

“The first year after the disaster was the most difficult, because initially we had no money to build a new school,” said Principal Kawabata, “but somehow I felt that all the hardship made me stronger, and never for a moment did I think that I should start looking for another job. Since I was young, I knew that I would always work here at this school.”

After months of searching for funds to rebuild the school, the Red Cross stepped in and supported the reconstruction. Its light-filled building is now filled with the shouts and laughter of dozens of small children.

“This school is really a vital part of the social services here in Yamada town,” says Atsushi Okawa, a fisherman who spends most of his day at sea while entrusting his 5 year-old son to the school’s devoted staff.

“I was just back from shrimp fishing and had just gone out with my friends when we felt the earthquake,” said Mr. Okawa. “I immediately thought of looking for my family, but because I am also a volunteer in the fire department it was my responsibility to close the water barrier, in case a tsunami would follow in the wake of the earthquake.”

The water barrier was not high enough to stop the enormous wave from hitting the town. Mr. Okawa’s house was completely destroyed, along with much of the town’s vital infrastructure, such as health facilities and the school, which he had attended as a little boy.

Many of the children at the school still suffer from the memories of the tsunami. But new houses are being built and there is a spirit of optimism in the town.

“Yamada town will of course never be the same, but our lives are returning to normal, and thanks to the Red Cross we have a new and beautiful school building,” says Principal Kawabata smiling broadly.

In addition to infrastructure projects like rebuilding Osawa Nursery School, the Red Cross has also helped people revive businesses, provided housing and continues to deliver emotional support for children and elderly people who were impacted by the disaster.

About the American Red Cross:

The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.