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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

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Starting from scratch: A mother who lost her children stands in front of Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on April 5. The March 11 tsunami killed 74 of the 108 students and all but one of the dozen teachers. AP PHOTO

Loss-staggered school reopens

Surviving kids, teacher look to resume class


ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Pref. — Classes start this week at Okawa Elementary School. But 74 of the 108 students will never come back. They died in last month's tsunami. All but one of the dozen teachers also perished.

The school's main building is ripped open. Trees jam into second-floor classrooms and the gym and playground have been reduced to muddied concrete foundations.

All along the battered northeastern coast, schools have been heavily damaged or converted to shelters, and families are without jobs, permanent homes or cars. But the country is determined to move ahead with one of its rites of spring: the start of the school year in April, even as some parents and children grieve.

"I'm just not ready to think about school yet. They haven't even found my daughter," said Naomi Hiratsuka, who lost her child, Koharu, a sixth-grader at Okawa Elementary, and has a younger one entering first grade.

Officials say establishing routines is a crucial step in rebuilding communities and drawing residents out of crisis mode. The 34 surviving students of Okawa Elementary will begin classes Thursday in four rooms at a nearby school, staying together and treated as a separate school of their own.

"We don't know yet if the school can be rebuilt, but we want to maintain continuity for the students," said Shigemi Kato, an education committee official in Ishinomaki, a devastated riverside community in Miyagi Prefecture.

The damage to the school system is immense. In Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, which bore the brunt of the damage from the March 11 disaster, more than 1,000 students and teachers are dead or missing, out of an overall death toll that could top 28,000. To help deal with the mental strain, psychologists and school counselors from around the country are being trained and sent to the hardest-hit areas.

Classrooms will be crowded. Nearly 200 schools require replacement or major renovations, and thousands more need repairs. Hundreds are being used as shelters, mainly their gyms and assembly halls.

Days after the disaster, teachers visited shelters, checking on their students and even handing out homework assignments.

At Okawa Elementary, another issue is trust.

Parents are frustrated at the lack of an explanation for its tragedy, when other schools nearby were also heavily damaged but had no deaths. A month after the disaster, relatives of the deceased still gather near the city's wreckage to mourn and peer into trucks that drive by with recovered bodies to check for their children.

"After the quake, I heard there would be a tsunami, but she was at the elementary school, so I thought she would be safe," said Katsura Sato of her daughter, Mizuho, another sixth-grader who died. "I just want to know how she spent her last minutes."

According to city and school officials, teachers told students to get under their desks when the earthquake hit, then led them outside to the playground, as they had been trained. The next step was to seek higher ground, but fallen trees blocked the way up a steep mountain, so after debating for several minutes they started heading toward an elevated bridge a short distance away.

Whether any got as far as the bridge is unclear, but the tsunami was far worse than expected 3.2 km from the ocean. The nearby river flooded, swamping the two-story school and snapping off a large-section of the steel, two-lane bridge.

Of the 34 surviving students, 26 had been picked up by their parents before the tsunami came. Seven others were somehow swept to safety while the other was rescued by Junji Endo, the lone surviving teacher.

Debris from the school — a chalkboard, a miniature baseball bat, a single blue boot — is strewn across its former sports field, along with crumpled cars and wrecked buildings.

On April 9, 97 relatives attended a meeting with school and city officials, who apologized for the tragedy. Reporters weren't allowed inside, but attendees said parents fired off angry questions and got few answers.

Endo, still in shock and recovering from a dislocated elbow and frostbite in his feet, spoke briefly but then broke down sobbing and couldn't answer any questions, according to Kato, the education committee official.

Many relatives were visibly angry or crestfallen and didn't stop to talk to the media. Others were more understanding.

"For a disaster this big, these things can't be helped," said Sota Sasaki, 15, the son of a second-grade teacher who was one of the victims.

In Rikuzentakata, another tsunami-hit city in Iwate Prefecture, Chihiro Osaka could be forgiven if he stares out the window when classes start on April 20.

The field where the 14-year-old once played forward for the soccer team has become a base for the recovery effort. Rows of temporary housing have been built, camouflage military supply trucks come and go and a circle of older evacuees gathers daily around a fire in a metal barrel. A row of media satellite trucks sits in front of a toppled goal post, and the bicycle parking is a makeshift kennel for rescued pets.

Osaka has homework over the break but hasn't started it yet. Even with all the distractions, he is looking forward to class.

"There's just nothing to do," he said. "I always said how much I hated school, but I guess you need it."

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