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Japan earthquake, tsunami a year later: Lessons learned in coastal towns

March 11, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
It's only fitting that the word "Tsunami" is Japanese for "harbor wave." More than 1/3 of all major tsunamis in world history have happened in Japan.

See David Ono's special report, "Witness Japan: One Year Later"

Even the country's most famous work of art, "The Great Wave," was created in 1829 by Hokusai. Tsunamis are an inevitable part of life.

Dr. Shiro Unoura, 87, has lived through three catastrophic tsunamis. On his porch in Ofunato, he has a beautiful view of the bay.

Last year, after the quake, Unoura knew a tsunami would follow, so he sat on his deck and watched it happen. He says the 15-foot seawall at the entrance to the bay was no match for the giant wall of water. The tsunami just kept going, devastating the small seaport.

Just like what he saw in 1933, when a tsunami killed one of his classmates, and again in 1960, when he barely got his family out alive, his home was overrun.

As the years go by, people forget how deadly a tsunami can be. They live with a false sense of security, thinking they are protected by sea walls.

In Ofunato, a series of defensive walls were in place only to be demolished. As seen in one video after another, sea walls were far too small and ineffective.

See raw video of the Japan tsunami as the Ofunato seaport is destroyed by waves

See raw video taken in the seaport of Ofunato during the 2011 Japan 8.9 earthquake

Eiji Namura is a writer who has been studying sea walls. He showed me what is left of Ofunato's sea wall and pointed out the many flaws in its design. Namura said the problem with one wall was not just its height, but its shape. It was made straight up, so when the tsunami hit it, it was obliterated.

A stunning example of this occurred at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. A sea wall almost 20-feet high was dwarfed by a 50-foot surge of water and torn to pieces. As a result, the water knocked out electricity, which knocked out its cooling system, which caused a meltdown. The country has shut down all its nuclear power plants because that sea wall failed.

During my trip, I got a rare look inside the Japan Meteorological Agency, the most advanced earthquake center in the world. When an earthquake hits, the system quickly pinpoints the location and within seconds it's on national television. As sophisticated as this system is, scientists admit they severely underestimated March 11's incoming tsunami.

Akihiko Wakayama said their equipment is accurate up to an 8.0-magnitude earthquake, but the one that struck in 2011 was a 9.0-magnitude quake, and the equipment gave poor readings on the potential tsunami. As a result, the warnings were slow to get out and didn't notify people in danger that the wave heading right for them was a monster.

So what do you do if you are the mayor of Ofunato and have to rebuild a city that has been annihilated three times in the last 80 years? Mayor Kimiaki Toda's plan is to build a better sea wall and not rebuild the city in the area that is prone to tsunami.

Dr. Unoura has already figured that out. He now lives on top of a hill. Had he stayed in his previous home, he would not have survived. Sadly, his two sisters couldn't make it to high ground last year and were swept away.

See David Ono's special report, "Witness Japan: One Year Later"