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A California Community Helps A Tsunami Boat Go Home

Next month marks five years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. The magnitude 9.0 quake generated tsunami waves over 120 feet high. It also killed nearly 16,000 people, and resulted in the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. 

But an unexpected connection with Crescent City, California also emerged.  The result is a newly published children’s book which tells of how a small boat managed to bring together a remarkable mix of people from both sides of the Pacific Ocean. 

When we walk along beaches we tend to look for things; or maybe it’s more that we hope to find things: shells, buoys, driftwood - or - the unexpected.

And that’s what happened in the spring of 2013 when - two years after a massive quake hit the east coast of Japan - a small fishing boat washed up in Crescent City.

Amya Miller says, “It started with what I’m calling a random act of kindness.”

Amya handles foreign diplomacy and press matters for the coastal town of Rikuzentakata, Japan, just northwest of the 2011 epicenter.

“A group of kids from Del Norte High School in Crescent City, California pretty much adopted the boat,” she says. “And they cleaned it up and said ‘we want to send it back’.”

That’s when the cast of characters involved started to get interesting. It seems the boat called ‘Kamome’- or ‘Seagull’ in English -  belonged to Takata High School in Rikuzentakata. Amya had already been found on Facebook by Lori Dengler. Lori’s a retired Humboldt State Geology professor who specializes in earthquakes and tsunami preparedness. She was called in to see the boat the day after it was found.

Lori says that after the initial scraping of barnacles, the finders made the connection.

“Yes, it’s clearly a tsunami boat. It belongs to this high school. And at that point this story could have very easily ended.”

But the story was just beginning. Working together - and having not yet met in person - Amya and Lori were able to get government agencies on both sides of the Pacific to work together. A Japanese freighter offered to bring Kamome home, back to a town where the high school - like most of the buildings - was flattened, and ten percent of the population had died.

“We are coming up on 5 years,” Amya says. “And we get it. It is old news. The world has moved on, and rightfully so.  But for the people, at least,  in Rikuzentakata it has not moved on.”

Amya feels the boat’s return offers an opportunity to heal. And she’s been touched by how people have embraced the project.

“People didn’t have to do this,” she says. “Lori didn’t have to do this. The Crescent City community, the high school kids, the shipping magnate in Japan that said ‘sure, we’ll take the boat back for you’.  … hope keeps popping up as a continual theme."

And the Kamome story has not stopped. In fact, it’s grown. The two high schools are now two years into an annual exchange program. And Lori and Amya have published a children’s book about Kamome in both English and Japanese.

Amy Uyeki is the designer and illustrator of “The Extraordinary Voyage of Kamome: A Tsunami Boat Comes Home”.

“You could say it is a story about hope floating,” she says. “It’s a story about growth. Growth of understanding. Friendships. But also the boat becoming another creature in a way, its own character.”

Halie Dearman is herself a character in the Kamome story.

“For me it is letting younger generations know what hope is,” she says.

Halie was one of the Del Norte High School students who helped clean and return Kamome. As part of the first exchange group to visit Rikuzentakata she feels it changed her life. She’s now studying pre-nursing at Sacramento State.

“You can definitely see the devastation in the people. But it’s really given me like a focus on what I want to do. I want to go out and help people. With nursing you can go anywhere with that and help people.”

Amya Miller says the story has been a continuation of miracles.

“Every step of the way it’s been a continuation of miracles. And so the story gains momentum. It gains power. It gains beauty. Hope matters. Kindness matters. Good deeds matter. And I think God help us if we forget that.”

On March 11th, 2016 - the 5-year commemoration date of the earthquake and tsunami - where will the characters of Kamome be?

Lori Dengler will be speaking at the Tokyo museum. Illustrator Amy Uyeki and co-author Amya Miller will also be at commemorations in Japan. Pre-nursing student Halie Dearman will be studying for a biology test in Sacramento. Kamome will be in the Nagoya City Museum as part of an exhibit entitled “The Treasures of Rikuzentakata”

And this week, the second batch of Crescent City High School students are in  Rikuzentakata. They’ve brought along a peace pole carved from redwood which reads “Peace on Earth” in six languages.