Humboldt State geology professor Lori Dengler finds herself teaching much more than science these days – she is helping educate children on two continents about disaster, recovery, hope and how one little boat lost at sea can connect distant worlds.
Dengler will tell the California Seismic Safety Commission at 10:45 a.m. Thursday how to teach students through the incredible odyssey of an anonymous Japanese boat tossed to sea in a monster tsunami, propelled by ocean currents to Northern California and then brought back home.
“My goal is to engage children, parents and teachers in the richness of this story,” Dengler said. “Along with science, it has geography, oceanography and multicultural components.”
The magnitude-9.0 Tohoku-oki Japan quake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, claimed 2,000 lives, destroyed hundreds of homes and schools and sent waves as high as 100 feet crashing over the coast of northeastern Japan. One of those waves plucked the Kamome, a 20-foot-long fiberglass boat used to train oyster fishermen at Takata High School in Rikuzentakata. The tsunami rumbled across the Pacific, wrecking 35 boats and destroying the harbor of Crescent City, a fishing village in Del Norte County, and killing one young man who had come to watch the storm at the mouth of the Klamath River.
The Kamome, which means “seagull,” knocked around the ocean, and on April 7, 2013, the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Department found the white boat with a blue bottom on the beach at Crescent City. It was filled with hundreds of gooseneck barnacles more than a foot long, making it look like a giant vat of thick spaghetti noodles, Dengler said.
Chills ran up and down my body.
Humboldt State geology professor Lori Dengler upon discovery that the barnacle-laden boat had originated in Japan
“The boat is arguably the most significant piece of tsunami debris from Japan to ever have been found, and it connected two cities vulnerable to tsunamis and initiated an exchange between high schools in Japan and California,” she said. Other than that, the most notable piece of debris was a vintage Harley Davidson motorcycle a Japanese man had stored in styrofoam in his garage. Dengler said it landed at Vancouver Island.
The boat’s journey also inspired Dengler to co-write a bilingual children’s book, “The Extraordinary Voyage of Kamome: A Tsunami Boat Comes Home,” published in November by Humboldt State University Press. It already is being taught in Del Norte County elementary schools, and Dengler hopes the state will use it to develop a curriculum to help teach every student in California about earthquake and tsunami preparedness.
The boat was a mystery until the barnacles were scraped off. The name of Takata High School appeared in Japanese and “chills ran up and down my body,” said Dengler, an international quake and tsunami expert who had visited Japan to assess the damage after the after the 2011 disaster. “The coincidence was incredible,” she said. She posted news and pictures of the boat on the Rikuzentakata Facebook page.
It immediately captured the imagination of the town’s public relations officer, Amya L. Miller, an American born in Tokyo who had returned to Japan to assist in the recovery. “I wanted the boat back, but the city and the high school didn’t because they had no place to put it,” Miller said.
The Kamome – a panga boat used to train dozens of students to dive and fish for oysters – represented more than a white elephant to Miller.
“The boat symbolizes something so beautiful. It’s resilience, it’s hope, it’s a miracle, it’s good deeds, it’s kindness, it’s generosity, it’s everything humanity has to offer,” Miller said. “Everything that’s lost in a tsunami is supposed to be lost forever. When something is found after two years in the Pacific, it symbolizes hope.”
Miller helped persuade a Japanese shipping magnate, Nippon Yusen Kaisha, to bring it home on a cargo ship and placed in Rikuzentakata’s museum, a makeshift display area because the original museum had been destroyed. “People were giddy,” Miller said. “It was such an injection of positive, feel-good energy, hundreds of people have come to see it. And last March it was on display at the Tokyo National Museum, the equivalent of the Smithsonian, as part of an exhibit on disaster recovery.”
Facebook, which had played a role in the boat’s return and the international connections that followed, produced the video by for Facebook. Dengler and Miller teamed up with Arcata artist Amy Uyeki to produce the children’s book. Del Norte students who cleaned the boat visited students of the stricken Takata High School in 2014.
There’s no way to tell when the next monster quake and tsunami will hit California, Dengler said. “It could happen tomorrow, or it could happen in our children’s lifetime. Big magnitude-9 earthquakes can be as close together as 150 years or as far apart as 800 years – the last one up here occurred Jan. 26, 1700, at 8 p.m.”
That quake sent a tsunami rolling across the Pacific that wiped out rice stored in warehouses all along the Japanese coast, Dengler said. The Yurok and Tollowa north coast Indians told in their legends of that quake and tsunami that turned the prairie into ocean.
“My primary interest is motivating individuals to take actions that will allow them and their families to get through the the next big event with minimal impact,” Dengler said, and educating children is a great way to start. “Talking to children about disasters is uncomfortable. It’s a little like talking to them about sex, so a lot of us avoid it. But this sweet story talks about things even small children can do to make themselves safe.”
What to do
In an earthquake, crouch under a table or desk for cover and hold on. If a tsunami is suspected, move with children and family members to high ground as soon as it is safe. Take an emergency kit that includes water and a blanket. Remain there until an all-clear is issued. Remember, the largest waves can follow hours after the first wave arrives. For information, visit humboldt.edu/rctwg or humboldt.edu/shakyground.