USAR Response to Japan Earthquake and Tsunamis, Part 2


Part 1 was published in the October 2011 issue.

Part 2 continues our review of the Japan tsunami of March 10, 2011, which killed nearly 30,000 people. Specifically, this is a look at the post-tsunami urban search and rescue (USAR) operations conducted by the U.S. teams and their international colleagues; the good work done by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Air Force, and other elements of the U.S. government; and a review of the lessons that we can apply to prepare for our own tsunami disasters.


The strongest earthquake ever known to have struck Japan (magnitude 9.0) occurred on March 10, 2011, at 2246 hours Pacific Standard Time (PST). The Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department (LACoFD) “heavy” rated international USAR team had just returned from a two-week deployment to the Christchurch, New Zealand, earthquake disaster under the auspices of USAID. The epicenter of the Japan earthquake was 45 miles east of Honshu Island’s Oshikia Peninsula, 231 miles northeast of the capital city of Tokyo.

Local tsunami warning systems—including strategically placed warning sirens—were activated along the entire northeastern Japan coastline. Minutes later, a series of devastating tsunamis, some up to 125 feet high in some places, began decimating Japan’s coastal cities.

At the same time, the Hawaii and West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Centers issued a series of tsunami watches and warnings for a possible series of tsunami impacts on the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific mainland coast as the waves spread across the Pacific at the speed of a jet aircraft. Tsunami watches and warnings were initially issued for at least 20 other nations. At first, California was placed under a Tsunami Watch (possibility of a tsunami; make appropriate preparations), which shortly thereafter was upgraded to a Tsunami Warning, indicating that strategically positioned ocean buoys had confirmed a series of tsunami waves.

Immediately after the quake, the U.S. government offered assistance that included military assets to support search and rescue, road clearing, and other critical needs; nuclear experts; a wide range of advisors; and two “heavy” internationally rated USAR teams, Virginia’s Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department (FCFRD) and California’s LACoFD (both under the auspices of USAID).

The USAR teams were activated within hours of the quake. Both teams landed together at Misawa Air Force Base (in northern Japan) before proceeding to the coast, using transportation assets of the U.S. Air Force. The United Kingdom’s national USAR team joined the U.S. teams at Masawa and traveled together to the coast. They worked together, shared the same Base of Operations (BoO) at a school in the coastal mountain town of Setamai, and collaborated from start to finish to assist Japan in its time of need.

The USAID Disaster Assistance Research Team (DART) and leaders from the three USAR teams met with the Local Emergency Management Authority (LEMA) commanding overall search and rescue operations from the Ofunato Fire Department headquarters. The USAR teams were assigned to assist Japan’s firefighters and authorities in searching the port city of Ofunato for possible survivors. The school at Setamai, several miles inland of Ofunato, was graciously offered as a BoO for the USAR teams by its director, who also acted at times as interpreter.

Although the three USAR teams were prepared to set up shelters and operate outdoors even in the dead of winter, the availability of the school’s athletic court (for sleeping quarters) and offices (for meetings and various team functions) saved time setting up the BoO and allowed the teams to immediately engage in search and rescue operations. Structural engineers embedded within the three teams inspected the buildings and deemed them safe for BoO habitation. This was an important factor in view of the many aftershocks that occurred in the ensuing days.


The teams moved into the assigned search areas on the morning of March 15. USA-2’s search area was sandwiched between the geographic divisions assigned to USA-1 and the U.K. team. Each team established a temporary forward BoO from which to coordinate the search of its assigned area. USA-1’s forward BoO and command post were strategically placed at the uphill edge of the “tsunami interface” (described here, perhaps for the first time publicly, as a wide band of destruction notable for many collapsed buildings that had been pushed uphill by the tsunami waves but which had not necessarily been completely submerged in water altogether). From there, the Fairfax County task force leaders and other leaders could command and coordinate the wide-area search operations down to the waterline.

Adjacent to USA-1’s forward BoO was the “forward” on scene operational control center (OSOCC), established to help coordinate the operations of the international USAR teams in Ofunato City and surrounding environs. From there, the progress of the international USAR teams was tracked as they moved through their assigned search areas looking for survivors and victims. This coordination element is critical to the effective and smooth functioning of international USAR resources in support of the nation and localities experiencing the disaster. It also serves as a sort of clearinghouse for information and intelligence and resource requests in support of the overall USAR operations.

USA-2’s forward BoO was a parking lot just uphill of the inland margin of the tsunami interface zone. The U.K. team’s forward BoO was in a similar location in its assigned search area.

The three USAR teams quickly engaged in wide-area searches in their assigned zones along the heavily industrial and residential southern shores of Ofunato’s inland bay. The search areas were gridded off, identified, and then methodically searched for survivors and deceased victims. Complications included “total wipeout” conditions with no visible streets, no addresses, and no maps with English translations. Grids were established, and we overcame these complications through a combination of traditional and innovative solutions.

Safety briefings were conducted to review aftershock potential and actions, the signals for tsunami warnings, escape routes, safe zones, and other LCES components (Lookout, Communications, Escape Route, Safe Zone) and safety issues. The search squads shared technical and canine search resources. Heavy snow fell during parts of the operations.

For USA-2, it was determined that conducting wide-area operations in the grid assigned for the first operational period would be unreasonably dangerous to conduct in darkness because of the many hazards in the inundation zone, the potential for secondary events like collapse and additional tsunamis, and other factors that limit effectiveness and personnel safety in the night. This is similar to extended search operations conducted during hurricanes, some floods, and certain other disasters. The risk to searchers greatly increases at night, when hazards like electrical lines, voids in the ground or debris pile, and secondary collapse are more dire.

Local authorities discovered six bodies on the first day. Each body was marked, mapped, and reported to the appropriate authorities. At the forward BoOs, USAR team members went through the decontamination process established by the respective hazmat specialists. The team departed the search area about 1700 hours, arriving at the BoO at 1800 hours as darkness set in.

Later that night, team leaders from the three USAR teams, as well as the forward OSOCC representatives, met with local Japan commanders at Ofunato Fire Department headquarters to brief them on the day’s operations and to determine operational benchmarks, accomplishments, and assignments for the following day. After the teams were largely bedded down, the commanders returned with instructions to be prepared to move out by 0700 hours the following morning for expanded search operations. This was typical of the battle rhythm of the operations conducted by the three USAR teams: up and out at daybreak; search all day; decon personnel and equipment; return to the BoO for rehab and rest, nighttime progress, and planning meetings; and up and out at first light the next day.

Based on the assignments from Japan’s officials the previous night, the three teams proceeded to conduct wide-area search and to begin targeted delayering operations to locate survivors and victims in large collapses and in large debris piles that necessitated heavy equipment for selective debris removal. For the delayering operations, the teams selected areas with the highest likelihood to contain trapped survivors and prioritized those places.

Japan officials had arranged for excavators to be made available to the USAR teams; the plan was for wide-area searches to proceed in some areas while rescue (search) squads operated with the available excavators. Meanwhile, the technical and canine search elements (photo 1) would be coordinated to best effect by the respective search team managers.

(1) Delayering operations with heavy equipment in a snow flurry. [Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.]

Arriving back in the search areas, the teams determined priority search areas, especially in the tsunami interface where the waves had pushed buildings, autos, and debris to the perimeter of its advance and then receded, leaving a wide band of collapse and debris piles and structures that had not been completely submerged.

By early morning, the priority zones for delayering search had been identified, along with travel routes into the destruction for the excavators. In some cases, USAR team members had to construct ramps to allow access to the sites they had targeted for delayering. By midmorning, several excavators were working closely with the teams in operations coordinated by squad leaders and the heavy equipment and rigging specialists assigned to the USAR teams. Safety officers looked after the safety of the teams and took precautions to prevent mishaps and keep the search rhythm going.

Snow fell in increasingly heavy flurries throughout the day, sometimes reducing visibility (photo 2). The weather was a factor in the pace of operations, but the USAR teams were well-equipped for winter conditions. Wide-area search operations proceeded until delayering operations at the targeted sites were completed in the assigned geographical areas.

(2) U.K. USAR canine waiting his turn for decontamination during a heavy snow flurry in Kamishi.

The delayering of targeted areas and the wide-area search of the assigned areas were wrapping up, with personnel beginning to be decontaminated as darkness approached around 1700 hours. The teams arrived back at the BoO in darkness for rehab, food (meals ready-to-eat), and rest.

The planning meeting with Japan’s commanders in Ofunato was scheduled for 2200 hours; the three USAR team leaders, with instructions to be prepared to depart at 0700 hours the next morning, got back to the BoO well after the teams had bedded down. Throughout the field operations and in meetings like this one, Seiji Okada, minister of Japan’s embassy in Afghanistan and leader of a team of interpreters provided by the Japan Foreign Ministry, played a vital role in ensuring effective communications with Japan’s authorities and residents. Without their help, communications with those who spoke Japanese would have been seriously hampered.

The commanders from all teams reviewed the day’s operations and determined operational benchmarks, goals, and assignments for the following day. The search site was up the coast to the devastated port city of Kamaishi.


The three USAR teams departed for Kamaishi, approximately 20 miles north of Ofunato, just after sun-up. The trip to Kamaishi was a two-hour convoy over winding roads through the steep, high, snow-covered coastal mountains. The roads were covered in snow. An escort from the Kamaishi Fire Department led the teams across the mountains and down to the coast. The convoy included six tour buses and five 6X U.S. Air Force trucks from Misawa Air Force Base, whose commander had graciously assigned the drivers to accompany and support the USAR teams throughout their operations.

The convoy arrived at Kamaishi City Hall at 0930 hours and attended a briefing to receive specific search instructions and maps. The assigned search area, a neighborhood known as Unosumai that sits on one of the bays in the Kamaishi city limits, had received only a cursory search thus far. The place had been devastated.

Unosumai (as well as greater Kamaishi City) had been struck by tsunamis estimated to have exceeded 14 feet in height. The Kamaishi Tsunami Protection Breakwater was seriously damaged. The breakwater (6,400 feet long and 207 feet deep) was once recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the deepest breakwater on Earth. The tsunamis swept up three main bays that make up Kamaishi City, carrying homes, automobiles, and debris miles inland. Then the water reversed course and rushed back to the sea, carrying the same debris (now further broken up) and many victims. The tsunami impact in Kamaishi was well documented; the destruction of this city is among some of the most dramatic scenes caught on film and seen around the world.

The leaders of the three USAR teams had agreed to meet at a bridge dividing the search area in Unosumai. From there, they would divide the search area assigned to them by Japan’s officials at Kamaishi City Hall. Once the teams had convoyed through the disaster area to the bridge, the search areas were further gridded off, and target search areas were identified. A unified communication plan was also established. A unified command post was established with local and regional Japan fire department officials next to the bridge (photo 3). From there, they coordinated the overall search and rescue operation in this part of the city.

(3) A unified international command post was established at this bridge.

In cold, windy weather marked by snow flurries and a number of significant aftershocks, the teams moved through the search areas, methodically searching for survivors but finding only bodies of the deceased. The operation continued until this part of Kamaishi was thoroughly searched and more deceased victims were recovered.


On March 18, 2011, Japan determined that the USAR teams had completed their assigned search and rescue operations and there were no further missions for the teams. The demobilization began, coordinated by the USAID DART with assistance from Misawa Air Force Base.

The rescuers thoroughly cleaned the school grounds in Setamai, which had become a unified BoO for three USAR teams. The equipment caches were loaded and prepared for departure. The convoy once again traversed the mountains of the northern coastal area of Japan and headed toward Misawa Air Force Base.

At Misawa, the convoy, equipment, canines, and personnel were checked for radiological contamination; it was confirmed that there had been no exposure. Once inside the base, the team was then assembled for a briefing by Okada (minister of Japan’s embassy in Afghanistan and leader of the team of interpreters from Japan’s Foreign Ministry). Okada thanked the USAR teams for their diligent work and reiterated Japan’s dire situation and the need for international USAR teams in this catastrophe.

On March 19, the U.S. USAR teams completed Japan Customs procedures and loaded onto a chartered Delta Airlines 747 aircraft for the nonstop return flight.

Surprising Levels of Destruction in Ofunato

The search areas in Ofunato were notable for what could be described as “total wipeout” conditions from the waterline inland through to the “tsunami interface” to the inland/uphill tsunami boundary lines that ran just below the main road that cut midslope across the mountainsides that border Ofunato’s bay. The destruction along some swaths of land was akin in some ways to that seen in the worst hurricanes and tornadoes: entire blocks leveled; street signs and other landmarks obliterated; no way to determine street names except through the use of a global positioning system and local knowledge; many large buildings and vehicles deposited far from where they had been; and ease of disorientation because the destruction for block after block and mile after mile in some areas was so complete that it appeared many victims had been swept into the sea, along with nearly anything else that would float.

Adding to the sense of “total wipeout” was the sheer proportion of destruction, which easily exceeded that of most disasters. In some places, it looked like a monster had tossed buildings, boats, automobiles, and large industrial machinery and cranes haphazardly. That is essentially what the monster waves had done. The only thing that seemed to be working in the rescuers’ favor was that some communication systems still seemed to be functioning in some areas.

In many places, the tsunami waves penetrated far uphill and inland of the main road traversing the hills on both sides of the bay, and they had even deposited large tugboats and fishing vessels far uphill. This was remarkable based on the height (estimated 200 feet or more) above the bay.

The surprisingly deep inland/uphill reach of the tsunamis affected the assignment of “High Ground/Safe Zones” by the USAR teams planning for the inevitable aftershocks and tsunami warnings that would occur in the following days. This concern was heightened by our observation of tsunami evacuation and safe refuge zone signs in USA-1’s search area, where even the areas that had been considered safe because of their inland/uphill locations had been wiped out.

The concern was heightened by the sight of total wipeout conditions and the presence of large vessels in areas that had been expected to be safe from tsunamis. In safety briefings for search squads and other personnel about to engage in operations, I (assigned as deputy task force leader for the Japan tsunami mission) instructed personnel to constantly be aware of escape routes and how to reach them and to move far above the existing tsunami inundation boundaries should there be another large earthquake or tsunami warning, just to add a margin of error in case incoming tsunamis might be higher than normally anticipated.

Having studied tsunamis for many years and having been involved with the development and implementation of the Los Angeles County Tsunami Plan for a decade, I was left wondering, why did the destruction here extend so far inland and uphill, far beyond what might be expected from a 30- or 40-foot tsunami? What funneling force had been at work to push the waves so far inland and so high up the hillsides? What had caused these tsunamis to wipe out areas that had been designated as public tsunami refuge areas, places so far uphill or inland that it would be reasonable to assume safety could be found there? We would learn those answers later from scientists and by examining the history of Ofunato, which had been leveled several times by huge tsunamis in the past century and a half.

Just as physical trauma to a human body has a direct correlation to “mechanism of injury” in our studies and experience of emergency medical systems, the damage observed by the USAR teams (and, consequently, the challenges posed by USAR teams conducting wide-area searches there) was dictated largely by the “mechanism of catastrophe” that had struck Japan. The quake and the resulting tsunami waves had a direct effect on the conditions encountered by the first responders and the assisting national and international USAR teams.

From scientists and others, we have learned the following about the cause of the Japan tsunami catastrophe: The magnitude 9.0 “main shock” earthquake resulted from the rupture of an offshore fault caused by five to eight meters of upthrust on a seabed measuring 180 kilometers (km) wide. The upraised seabed was about 60 kilometers offshore of Honshu, Japan. The displacement of water generated a series of tsunami waves exceeding 10 meters (30 feet) in height along much of the northeastern coast of Japan, which penetrated up to 10 km (six miles) inland in some places.

But Ofunato’s residents experienced an even more dire set of circumstances, which were responsible for the massive scale of destruction witnessed there. The port of Ofunato opens to the sea by a narrow entrance sandwiched by two high headlands, creating a sort of venturi effect that compresses and raises the waves when large tsunamis approach the coast. As the tsunamis moved inland past the coastal headlands, they encountered a widening of the bay, which eventually transitions to a long river valley leading into the coastal mountains. Prior to the tsunami, factories, heavy industry, and commercial zones had been located along the bottomlands nearly level with the sea. The hillsides rising away from the water had been covered densely by homes and light commercial zones reaching high into the hills on both sides of the bay.

Based on direct physical evidence (including fishing gear and other flotsam scattered high above the bay) found in Ofunato, a joint research team from Yokohama National University and the University of Tokyo has determined that at least one tsunami wave that swept up Ofunato’s bay exceeded 30 meters (90 feet) in height.

University of Tokyo researcher Taro Iwate more recently estimated the tsunami height in Ofunato at 37.9 m (124 feet). Iwate’s estimates are based on scour lines and other evidence he found on the slope of a mountain some 200 m (660 feet) from the coastline. His findings seem to match the eyewitness accounts of some local residents we encountered during our search operations there. These residents described huge waves “the size of a 10-story building” arriving just 13 minutes after the earthquake.

The Importance of Logistical and Other Support Operations

By Day 2 of the operations, the unified BoO at the school had grown to a sprawling camp for three USAR teams. It now included a number of shelters set up outside the buildings for various support operations, like Logistics, meeting rooms, equipment, personal protective equipment drying (sheltered from the snow and cold), and decon support for vehicles. The importance of effective logistics elements can never be overemphasized in the deployment of USAR teams to domestic or foreign disasters, but it’s even more critical when operating in other nations.

Another element of U.S. international disaster response that cannot be overemphasized is the USAID DART. While the USAR teams were out searching the devastated area, the USAID DART was extremely busy coordinating overall U.S. support operations in the field, making sure that the U.S. resources were meeting the need of Japan’s government and maintaining a solid stream of intelligence back and forth to Washington, D.C. This element of USAID’s response system is a strong point in American support to other nations experiencing major disasters.

As is typical in many disasters, there was no running water in the area, so hand-washing facilities, areas for food preparation and consumption, and other support were being coordinated by the Logistics elements of the three USAR teams working together, with support from Japan’s government and Misawa Air Force Base. Other issues included fuel, electricity, and heating for areas where personnel ate, slept, and worked.

The USAR teams are equipped to live and work in a wide range of environments, and this wasn’t even close to the most extreme winter weather they had encountered during disasters. But the logistics specialists were kept busy throughout the entire deployment. So were the communications specialists, who were challenged with maintaining communications among distant sites in mountainous country in the middle of a catastrophe and maintaining contact with the U.S. government in Washington, D.C., and the Fairfax County and L.A. County fire departments.

Likewise, the Medical Team personnel were on constant watch for injury-producing situations and were responsible for ensuring timely treatment. It was a challenge in the middle of a catastrophe. Once again, the three teams pooled their resources and collaborated on the medical component of the response.

The proverbial “gorilla in the room” was the damaged nuclear facilities to the south of the areas in which the three USAR teams operated. The hazmat specialists were constantly monitoring the environment of the teams at the BoO and in the field, and the DART and team leaders stayed abreast of the latest information on the nuclear contamination threat. The U.S. and Japan governments had a plan to move or demobilize the USAR teams if something unexpected occurred; in the meantime, the teams operated with no readings of elevated radiation detected during the entire mission.

LARRY COLLINS is a battalion chief and 31-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD). He was a captain of Rescue/USAR Task Force 103 for 20 years, responding to technical rescues and multialarm fires across Los Angeles County. He is a leader of the LACoFD’s FEMA/USAID USAR task force for domestic and international response and serves on FEMA’s national USAR Incident Support Teams. He is the author of dozens of research articles and the textbook series Technical Rescue Operations; the Rescue chapter of The Fire Chiefs Handbook, and the Support of Rescue Operations chapter of Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II.

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