Survivors sheltering at schools in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures have been asked to move to alternative evacuation shelters so that the schools could begin conducting classes, some evacuees were magnaminous in complying, others are staunchly refusing to move…

Evacuees asked to leave schools (The Yomiuri Shimbun, Apr 19, 2011)

Some survivors of the March 11 earthquake who are taking shelter at schools in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures have been left in an awkward position by requests from city and town governments to move out so classes can be held there.

Although the evacuees also want students to be able to get back to school as soon as possible, the alternative shelters available include a gymnasium that was submerged by the tsunami and places far from home.

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey of 20 local governments along the devastated Sanriku coast Saturday, about 22,000 people are taking shelter at 130 primary, middle and high schools in these two prefectures.

In some areas, including Minami-Sanrikucho, Miyagi Prefecture, the opening ceremony for the new school year is scheduled to be held on May 9 or later. The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has notified local governments that the opening ceremony can be delayed if required .

In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where school opening ceremonies are scheduled to be held this Thursday, municipal government staff on Friday visited 15 primary and middle schools being used as shelters to explain the situation to evacuees.

In Aoba Middle School, officials explained to about 700 evacuees staying in classrooms and other rooms that they would be relocated to a gymnasium away from the school.

Some evacuees opposed the plan.

“It’s too far from my house,” one said. “Classes could be held here even if we didn’t vacate all the rooms,” said another.

The municipal government tried to persuade the evacuees that “the environment at the new site is better than staying at the school.” However, no compromise has been reached.

Mika Suzuki, 42, who is staying at the school with seven of her family members, was fuming at the proposal.

“No one here wants classes to be put off, but I can’t agree with a relocation plan that seemed to have come off the top of someone’s head,” she said.

The relocation site suggested to evacuees at Kadowaki Middle School in the city was a gymnasium at a middle school that had been submerged by the March 11 tsunami. Some evacuees ripped into the government official bearing this proposal, demanding to know how their safety could be guaranteed if another tsunami hit the area. The official could only “um” and “ah” as he tried to think of an answer.

At Otsuchi High School in Otsuchicho, Iwate Prefecture, more than 400 people are taking shelter. On Friday, the town government listed on a bulletin board the names of about 200 people who are being asked to move to other shelters.

According to a survey of the evacuees, a majority would prefer to stay at the school. Takao Sato, 37, who was asked to move from the school, said, “I know classes are important, but I think the decision has been too one-sided.”

Seven months after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, the Kobe municipal government closed shelters at 216 locations, including schools. However, even a month later, 1,115 people were still taking refuge at 48 primary, middle and high schools.

An official at the compulsory education division of the Miyagi prefectural board of education was sympathetic to the evacuees’ plight, but insisted that getting kids back to school was the right thing to do.

“We understand the feeling of evacuees who don’t want to leave their communities, but reopening school can help students regain a sense of normalcy in their daily life,” he said. “Talking with classmates also will help them mentally. We hope the evacuees will cooperate and agree to move.”

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Some willing to move

But not all evacuees are reluctant to move to new lodgings.

At Daiichi Middle School in Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture, some of the people who were sheltering in its classrooms have voluntarily moved to the school gym.

About 500 people are taking shelter at the school. Considering the hardships many evacuees are going through, the school authorities planned to start lessons in unused classrooms at a nearby primary school.

However, the evacuees would have none of it. “We want the students to have proper lessons [at their school],” one evacuee said. They decided to move out of the classrooms.

On Saturday morning, Yukichi Yokota, deputy leader of management staff at the shelter, was issuing instructions as the transition got under way.

“Let’s start moving the chairs first,” Yokota, 68, said. The evacuees returned chairs they had been using as shelves for their belongings to the classrooms and cleaned the gymnasium.

School Principal Yasunobu Sasaki, 57, was touched by the magnanimity of the evacuees.

“I really appreciate what they’ve done. I hope that as a school, we can work well side by side with the shelter,” Sasaki said as he bowed his head.

About 60 of the 130 people taking shelter in Miyako Primary School in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, moved from its classrooms to its gym Saturday. The school said it had discussed the move with evacuees.

Teachers have divided the gymnasium into classroom-size areas separated by cardboard walls to replicate the classrooms where many evacuees built close bonds over the past month. This arrangement also enables the evacuees to maintain their allocated roles, such as cleaning and meal distribution, in their new “home.”

(Apr. 18, 2011)