On March 3, 2011, at around 2:45pm, the Celanese office in Tokyo shook. Many of my colleagues were impacted. I remember when I woke up the next morning, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami was on the news. It was clearly a devastating event.
I’ve thought about it many times since, including on a recent vacation to Thailand and it again over the 4th of July weekend when 11 members of the Celanese team, including Chief Executive Officer Mark Rohr and Senior Vice President of Human Resources Lori Johnston and I spent the day cleaning up the beachfront in the town of Minamisanriku – about 200 miles north of Tokyo and near the epicenter of the earthquake.
The volunteer work we did was relatively simple – sift the sand on the beach through screens to separate rocks, debris and other objects so the former seaside resort town could return to its previous beautiful state. The lessons I learned from touring the town and learning about the catastrophe were more complex.
Approximately 30 minutes after the earthquake, a wall of water between 50 and 60 feet high swept through the town with the type of force I had previously only seen (or imagined) in movies. Sixty-two percent of the towns 4,000 households were damaged and a total of 839 of the 17,000 residents were victims. Photos of the scenes or mangled wreckage still visible were impactful. But two specifics stories resonated with me.
One story centered around the town’s elementary school. Only two days before, a relatively minor earthquake prompted the school’s well-rehearsed evacuation procedure. Historically the routine took the children to the top of the school’s third story roof – about 40 feet above the level of the sea. Following the evacuation drill, school officials debated the merits of moving to a higher, safer location. The following day, they practiced their evacuation to the site of a shrine on a nearby hill – which was about 70 feet above sea level. The day of the massive earthquake, 18 preschoolers and 91 elementary students joined 190 neighboring residents at the Isuzu Shrine. The recently rehearsed routine brought the students to the hillside within 30 minutes of the initial quake. The tsunami surge reached the bottom of the final section of steps at the base of the shrine a few minutes later. The water level completely submerged the school and the previously defined evacuation spot.
A second story featured the heroic actions of a 24-year- old woman whose job was to initiate and announce the evacuation requirements over the public safety broadcast system. Her office was on the second floor of the town’s crisis management building – a three-story structure in the middle of the community. At the time of the earthquake, approximately 50 people were working in the building. As the young woman calmly announced the need for the town’s people to follow the prescribed evacuation processes, the other 50 people went to the roof of the building to seek refuge from the tsunami. The water level surged six feet higher than the roof line with such force that only 10 people were left clinging to the antennas and the small railing. The young woman who refused to leave her post, and her job responsibility, was one of the 40 people who did not survive at that location.
On the day we cleaned the beach, our team talked about the lessons we took away from our experiences. We thought about the value of constantly evaluating our safety processes to make sure we are looking at new facts like the school officials did. We thought about the commitment to others – becoming “our brother’s and sister’s keeper” like the young woman did. We reflected on the fragile nature of our health and safety.
I am very proud of our Celanese team and the work we did on the beach – helping to restore the seaside for tourists and residents. I am also very proud of the team’s commitment to live the lessons we learned – a little bit – each day.