Tsunami attack preceded by salty smell



Three and a half years has passed since the tragic quake-tsunami disaster took place in March, 2011. As the media keeps sending out a flood of information, this reporter visited the Sendai factory of Kirin Co. in Miyagi Prefecture during the summer holidays to see exactly what happened there on March 11 that year. Yumiko Ito, who guides visitors to the factory, gave me an account of what she witnessed at the time. When the tsunami hit the factory, she was guiding about 10 tourists as usual. The tour would normally end in a building where the visitors could look down a courtyard in the premises. But the courtyard was being refurbished on that day and all the windows of the building were covered by sheet. They could see nothing at all outside the building.




People spent all night at factory



Something abnormal happed about six minutes after the quake attack at 2:46 p.m. Salty smell began to waft around the factory. Tsunami reached there shortly afterward. It was at 3:40 p.m. A total of 481 people, including Ito, her guests, workers and residents took shelter on the roof of the factory. It was snowing in the area and it was too cold for them to stay there. Ito said, "We led our tourists and residents to tatami-mat rooms in the premises. They had to spend the night there with the emergency provisions we prepared."




The tsunami was up to 2.5 meters high in the factory premises. Water receded at around midnight. After the arrival of a Self-Defense Forces rescue team next morning, Kirin’s Emergency Center made a judgment on its own. It advised those who could walk home by themselves to do so and those who could not to take shelter in the factory’s gymnasium. A power outage left the evacuees with no access to TV news. They could hardly know what was going on. Radio was the only source of information.




Small mercy



The damage to the factory was heavy, with the collapse of its beer tanks leaving product equivalent to 17 million cans useless. When the extent of the damage became clear, the factory manager was not sure if the production could be resumed. Ito said the whole factory was full of debris brought by the tsunami and beer bottles scattered around. “It looked just like a garbage disposal site,” she said.




However, the factory was blessed with a small mercy. The facilities that supported its brewery process were not much damaged. It cost the company hundreds of millions of yen to repair them. But the factory resumed its operation half a year later and restarted shipment of its product on October 8.




According to Ito, a problem unique to the factory had to be resolved before the resumption of its operation. That concerned its water supply system. Unlike ordinary households, the factory relied on water supplied by a special electrically-driven system, which required more time for repair. It was in August that the system was back to normal. But before then, bottled water had to be used to scrape mud off. Ito said the staff couldn’t even use flush toilets.




New fixes based on lessons



The most important thing in the runup to the restart was to restore the factory’s warehouse functions. The warehouse in Sendai assumes a vital role as a transit point where not only its own products but those from other factories are stored for shipment to wide areas of the Tohoku region.




Based on the lessons learned from the disaster, some new fixes were adopted for the warehouse. One is that it has been expanded to provide a larger shelter space where foods and drinks are stockpiled to allow up to 700 evacuees to stay for two days if it is hit by tsunami higher than 8 meters. Another is the adoption of a system that sends a quake warning faster than an emergency alert made available on smartphones. Furthermore, the beer tanks have been bolstered with steel frames to prevent them falling down in a future disaster.




The factory has now been fully restored. All the debris and beer bottles are gone. Now that Kirin has recovered from the havoc, what is required of it will be to share its experiences and know-how with other businesses to provide for the future.




(Written by: Takuya Shintate)

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