This group of 16 junior high school students and their teachers from Onagawa visited Nelson last October

This group of 16 junior high school students and their teachers from Onagawa visited Nelson last October

Tsunami devastates home of Hampton Gray monument

A meeting is planned at city hall Wednesday at 9 a.m. to discuss ways to help a town with strong connections to Nelson that was devastated following Friday’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan.

A meeting is planned at city hall Wednesday at 9 a.m. to discuss ways to help a town with close ties to Nelson that was devastated following Friday’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan.

A huge tsunami wiped out much of the centre of Onagawa, where a monument commemorates Nelson’s Lt. Robert Hampton Gray, who died there at the tail end of World War II while leading an aerial attack on a Japanese destroyer.

The town has also sent student delegations to Nelson for the last four years.

Mayor John Dooley says the meeting is “for people interested in giving us ideas on how we can help or connect with these folks.

“We’re not sure what we’re going to do,” he says, “but we’ll definitely need people to help us whatever it is.”

Dooley will be present along with some city staff and Bruce Lacroix, who has organized homestays and activities for visiting students.

Lacroix says Onagawa’s delegations each consisted of about 20 students ages 11 to 13 and five adults. Nelson has yet to send a return trip, although there was some discussion it might happen this year.

“It was a matter of timing. Their school breaks were different from ours,” he says. The most recent group of students was here in October. Lacroix wasn’t involved in that trip, but says the host families have enjoyed it so much that many have been involved multiple times. Most have kids attending Trafalgar who are about the same age as their guests

“There have been a lot of friendships formed,” he says. “I know a number of homestay families have kept in touch with their Japanese kids, and we’ve kept in touch with a lot of the adults as well.”

However, since the quake, he has been unable to reach anyone by phone or email.

“I tried, my wife tried, and I’ve been getting emails from a few of the homestay parents asking what I know. I know nothing beyond what I’m getting from the media.”

The uncertainty is troubling, he says.

“I’m at a loss for words. I’m thinking of kids we’ve known and things we’ve done, and they may not be there. I don’t know what we can do from this end, but John [Dooley] said we should meet and at least discuss it.”

The Hampton Gray monument at Onagawa was erected in 1989 at the behest of the late Yoshi Kanda to celebrate Japan’s peaceful relations with Canada.

Gray’s niece, Anne George, said in a email that her family, along with the Canadian Defence Attache in Tokyo and the Township of Esquimalt — which is working toward establishing a sister-city relationship with Onagawa — “are all interested in sending something to our dear friends in Onagawa wan, but we are all at a loss to know what we could do that would be appropriate or doable in the short and long term.

“We were brought together by those townfolk though their generous efforts to honour Hampton Gray and hopefully we can return their gesture in spades.”

According to a report in the Asahi Times, a single satellite phone was Onagawa’s only connection to the outside world, and its batteries were nearly dead.

“We have no food, no water, no toilets,” mayor Nobutaka Azumi told a reporter who reached the town on Saturday. “We do need help, by any means.”

Onagawa has a population of 10,000, but only 3,000 residents have been accounted for.

Train service is suspended and roads are blocked with debris. There is no electricity or cell service. Although the town had several satellite phones for use in emergency, most were damaged when the tsunami hit the town office, on a small hill.

“There is rubble everywhere,” reporter Atushi Matsukawa wrote. “A soccer ball, New Year’s cards, a calculator and a sake flask were seen among the remains of houses.”

The town center has been devastated, Matsukawa added. A three-story concrete building has been toppled and two propane tanks are hanging from the top of a power pole.

A woman told the Times the geography of Onagawa Bay likely contributed to the tsunami’s force: the bay opens wide toward the epicenter of Friday’s quake, and the tsunami may have been funneled by the gorge in which the town lies.

Authorities declared a low-level state of emergency at the Onagawa nuclear power plant after detecting elevated radiation levels outside the facility, but they have since returned to normal. The International Atomic Energy Agency says no radioactive emissions occurred from any of the three reactor units at Onagawa.

(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Esquimalt and Onagawa were sister cities. They have not yet formalized the arrangement.)