Resiliency in Tsuruta

Sister City residents band together in post-storm recovery

The Iwaki River (above) swelled to within inch-es of breaching its floodbanks, which would have been catastrophic for the small town of Tsuruta

Lisa Kawachi
The Iwaki River (above) swelled to within inch-es of breaching its floodbanks, which would have been catastrophic for the small town of Tsuruta

(Editor’s Note: Lisa Kawachi is currently serving as the Hood River-Tsuruta Sister City Committee’s Coordinator of International Relations. She lives and works in Tsuruta, Japan, which has been Hood River’s sister city for more than 35 years. Kawachi filed this story earlier this week.)

Summer is over and the arrival of fall is something I greatly anticipate, especially in Japan.

The summer weather here is enjoyable until the humidity begins. Once that happens, I sit and wait, counting the days before that feeling of constant sweatiness ends. After the muggy weather dissipates, fall officially arrives. Unfortunately, here in Tsuruta we have a mere few days of nice, comfortable autumn weather before storm season begins and the rain starts to fall.

People here fret about rain. During this time of year everyone wears rain boots and no one leaves their house without an umbrella. Back home in Hood River, I always saw an umbrella as something completely unnecessary. In fact, I don’t think I even own an umbrella back home. But here in Japan, it is a necessity, so I conceded and bought my own character-themed, bright yellow umbrella to fit in with my neighbors.

The rain can feel relentless here, especially when typhoon season begins. Last year was pretty uneventful as far as the storm presence in Tsuruta, so I didn’t think much about all the recent weather advisories and people talking about the incoming storms. I had no idea what all the fuss was about.

To demonstrate how oblivious I was to the effects that typhoons have, I will tell you about the day the first remnants of a typhoon hit Tsuruta earlier this month. Throughout the day, weather advisories were issued. I paid little attention to them, but it was all my coworkers could talk about. I couldn’t help but think they were slightly overreacting. Yeah, sure, a lot of rain and wind were coming, but we weren’t in the direct path of the typhoon so how worried did we really have to be?

It had been raining pretty much nonstop for the last couple of days. That afternoon though, the sun reappeared and the rain completely ceased. “So much for the storm,” I thought.

I took this opportunity of clear weather and decided to take a nice walk along the local Iwaki River. The Iwaki River is a relatively narrow river and is 63 miles long. The river runs right through the middle of Tsuruta and right alongside where I work at the Tsuruta Town Office. What I didn’t know at the time was that this scenic walk of mine was a mere few hours before the aftermath of the torrential rain we had been experiencing the last few days. This would become apparent very soon.

I wanted to get a firsthand look at how much, if any, the river had risen over the last few days. Along this particular walk there is an upper road and a lower road. I chose to walk the upper road on the first leg of my walk and the lower road on my return.

I walked along the river banks noticing that indeed the river had risen and the current was much more powerful and swift than it usually was. I had a great view of the river along this upper road and the only time my view of the river was obstructed was by the occasional apple orchard, intermittently planted along the river bank.

On my return walk I took my time, stopping and rescuing the occasional worm or field mouse from a puddle that they had gotten trapped in. I had watched a boat tied to a tree on the river many times during my walks and enjoyed watching it peacefully sway against the current.

That day, though, there was no gentle current. The boat was being bashed on all sides and getting hit with logs, stumps and all sorts of other debris that the river had acquired from upstream. It was not hard to imagine how poorly I would have fared if I had gotten caught in the ravenous current of the river.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself on my walk and taking complete advantage of the break from the rain. There was quite a lot of activity occurring around me as farmers were moving their equipment up the hillside to the higher road as a precaution. I thought to myself as I walked along the lower road, “Their equipment will be safe up there. There is no way the river could rise that much.” I mean, sure it had been pouring nonstop for the last 36 hours and the wind had picked up a bit, but the rain had stopped, and being a Hood River native, I asked myself, “What’s a little rain and wind? There is no reason to panic and head for the hills.”

Apparently, I completely misjudged the effects that a “little” rain could have on the local river. I had been home from my walk for about three hours and had just finished eating dinner that evening when my doorbell rang. One of my Japanese friends was worried and wanted to check up on me. She had heard the Iwaki River was very high and since I live very close to it, wanted to make sure I was prepared in case the water reached my apartment. I grabbed a sweatshirt and the two of us walked the few minutes from my apartment to the riverbank to see how high the water had risen.

The scene unfolding around me astounded me. There were police and fire personnel everywhere blocking people’s access to the river. The nearby local care center was even evacuating its residents in case the upper bank of the river was breached. If the river rose higher than this bank there was nothing stopping it from flooding the heart of downtown Tsuruta and hundreds of homes and businesses. This upper bank was the same road that the farmer’s had been moving their equipment to earlier.

The quietness and tranquility was gone, replaced by a sense of urgency and fear. There were sirens and people on bullhorns continuously warning people to stay back from the river. I was able to get just close enough to see the level of the river before I was ushered back by a firefighter. In a mere three short hours after my afternoon walk concluded, the entire river bank and surrounding hills were completely engulfed by the water. The same path I had walked along a few hours earlier was now nearly 10 feet underwater. The apple trees brimming with ripe Fuji apples only days away from being harvested were now completely submerged in the river. You could only see the tops of the apple trees above the murky, brown river water.

It was an unbelievable sight to see this river completely overtaking the orchards and the surrounding land. The amount of debris that the river was moving was staggering. There was everything from entire trees and billboards, to ladders and crates, and any kind of trash you could think of.

Thankfully, the river never quite breached the bank. It was extremely close to doing so; sand bags were even brought in for a last-ditch effort to hold the river back.

It took two days for the river to subside to more or less where it was before. Although no homes or businesses were lost in Tsuruta on account of this typhoon, many of the local orchards were adversely affected.

Once the river released its grasp on the apple orchards, you could see the damage the flooding had done to the orchards and the apple crops. The damage was extensive. Entire trees were uprooted, there was debris in the trees, around the trees and all along the river bank and probably the saddest sight were hundreds of beautiful apples riddled all upon the banks of the river, bruised and water-logged, never to be eaten by anyone.

This sight was particularly devastating to the people of Tsuruta. To them, apples define who they are and what this region is famous for. As I looked along the river bank, most of the apple crops of these orchards that sit along the river were lost.

In the days that followed the storm, I watched the local orchardists clear away the twigs and intruding vegetation that had accumulated on their waterlogged apple trees in an attempt to save any of their crops for the year. I thought their efforts would be fruitless, but clearly I did not take into account the incredible determination of these orchardists.

I saw crate after crate of apples rounded up. Most were too damaged to sell, but there were some that could be saved. I watched the orchardists go to painstaking efforts to make their apples desirable. They would individually inspect each apple and if it was deemed worthy, they would then polish the apple with a cloth and soft bristled toothbrush.

When they finished the polishing, the apples would shine and were transformed into a piece of perfection. Their color was amazing and their taste was still as delicious as ever. These steps were necessary because Aomori apples are known for their excellent quality and the locals take great pride in them. A dingy, bruised apple would never sell in the Japanese market. The orchardist’s resilience and determination to salvage what they could of their crop was remarkable.

The effects of the flooding were apparent anywhere that was close to the river. There was a line of trash along the 63 miles of the river marking where the water had risen to. Much work was needed to be done to get the riverbank back to the way it was before.

The cleanup efforts by the local townspeople after the river flooded were inspiring. Many locals and organizations got together to clean up all the debris that the river left on the banks. In fact by the time I was able to get involved a few days later, there was hardly anything left to clean up.

Tsuruta`s townspeople had worked so quickly as a community to restore the area to its former beauty. They also took the time to prepare for the future since storm season is still not over here. Heavy-duty sand bags were brought in to help reinforce the river bank just in case another typhoon hits Tsuruta this season.

There are a couple of things that I took away from this experience. For starters, I now know that flash floods can happen, well, in a flash, so next time I will pay more attention to the local weather advisories.

But more profoundly, I have seen the resilience of the Tsuruta townspeople and have garnered a newfound respect for these umbrella-toting Tsurutans.

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