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Local Okinawa residents from Ginowan City cross the National Route 58 highway toward Marine Corps Air Station Futenma during a tsunami evacuation in Okinawa, Japan, April 3, 2024. Through Local Implementation Agreements, Marine Corps Installations Pacific and local Okinawa municipalities allow Okinawa residents to gain on-base access to evacuate from lower elevations during a tsunami emergency event. By utilizing the routes through the base, residents can reach their destinations faster. (Courtesy photo by Marine Corps Air Station Futenma)

Photo by Cpl. Thomas Sheng

Marine Corps installations aid in evacuation of over 1,600 Okinawa residents during tsunami warning

5 Apr 2024 | Cpl. Thomas Sheng Marine Corps Installations Pacific

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP BUTLER, OKINAWA, Japan – U.S. Marines, master labor contractors, and Status of Forces Agreement personnel stationed in Okinawa utilized the roads of Camp Foster, Camp Kinser, and Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to evacuate local Okinawa residents from low-lying coastal areas on April 3.

At 8:58 a.m., an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.5 struck Taiwan, and authorities warned of a potentially destructive tsunami headed toward the southwest coast of Okinawa. Alerts, calls, and notifications urging evacuations began at 9:00 a.m. from Japan’s emergency messaging system.

Through existing local implementation agreements, Marine Corps Installations Pacific and local municipalities worked together to evacuate Okinawa residents to higher ground by allowing base access.

“In certain circumstances, the distance and time required for individuals residing in low-lying towns to travel toward higher ground and follow-on rally points is greatly reduced by traveling along designated routes through base,” said U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Zachary Jacob, assistant operations officer of the Provost Marshal’s Office, Marine Corps Installations Pacific. “In the event of an impending tsunami, evacuees residing off-base are notified by Japanese emergency messaging systems, which prompt them to travel to designated gates.”

Marine Corps installations across Okinawa began opening their gates once notifications were sent out, urging local residents to evacuate low-lying areas. Through LIAs, each base has designated routes for each point of entry and exit, but ultimately the goal was to reach higher elevation utilizing on-base routes to avoid having to drive around or along the outside of bases.

Col. David Banning, commanding officer of Headquarters and Support Battalion, MCIPAC, said, “The important thing to focus on is the community cooperation and making sure that everyone remembers we are not just part of the base community, we are part of the larger community that involves our local neighbors, and that in everything we do, we have to work together to be able to respond to whatever comes our way.”

Marine Corps Air Station Futenma responded by opening their gates to receive local Okinawa residents with help from the Okinawa Prefectural Police and from Ginowan City.

Futenma’s Gate 1 opened to receive oncoming traffic and Gate 2 opened for local residents to exit to a higher elevation.

Camp Foster opened its gates for residents of Chatan Town and Ginowan City, two low-lying coastal areas near the base. Personnel located on Camp Lester, Lester Middle School, and low elevation areas on Camp Foster were also evacuated to higher ground on base.

Marines with the Provost Marshal’s Office and Camp Guard on Camp Foster were responsible for directing traffic, starting from the gates and throughout the base. They also served as collection point managers so that residents knew where to go.

“Everybody worked as a team; the tenant commands did a great job,” said Sgt. Maj. Timothy Anderson, sergeant major of Headquarters and Support Battalion, Marine Corps Installations Pacific. “The unit leadership and all the tenant commands of the lower camp took it seriously and got everyone out of the lower areas. It really was a culmination of individual action, small unit leadership, and making this happen, and was a good response to a real-world crisis.”

Camp Kinser received a call to open its gates from Urasoe City shortly after the evacuation alert was sent out, and Marines were en route to open the gates. Just like MCAS Futenma, Camp Kinser opened Gate 5 to receive traffic and opened Gate 1 as an exit point for evacuees to reach Urasoe City.

Marines with Camp Operations, Combat Logistics Regiment 37, and various other 3rd Marine Logistics Group units on Camp Kinser, along with MLCs, provided direction and transportation escort through base.

Kenta Asato, a supply clerk with Camp Operations, Camp Kinser, was one of the MLCs posted at the entry gate on Camp Kinser to provide translation assistance and guidance for local residents.

“Some people were walking on a road along the fence line of the base,” said Asato. “We let them know that it was faster to reach their destination by traveling through Camp Kinser.”

By 10:50 a.m. the last evacuee passed through MCAS Futenma, adding up to an estimated 1,500 local residents that utilized the air station for evacuation.

“Our response was testimony to our commitment to the safety of the local community as well as to our preparation and rehearsals. I’m incredibly proud of our response during this unforeseen event,” said Col. William Pacatte, commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. “There were many moving parts but ultimately, all base personnel coordinated the rapid evacuation of local residents to reach their locations of safety.”

According to Anderson, MCIPAC aims to train for this type of scenario multiple times a year. “That helped us prepare for this event, doing those types of drills. It paid off because we had already made liaison with the community outside the gate, and this expedited the process so they could communicate to the people out in town.” He said at least 200 local residents, in cars and on foot, passed through Camp Foster.

On Camp Kinser, along with other personnel located on low-level ground, 27 staff and 28 children from the Yuimaru Child Development Center and 180 staff and students from Kinser Elementary School were evacuated.

At 12:24 p.m., the All-Clear was announced, lifting the tsunami warnings as Marine Corps installations began resuming their regular operations.

Camp Foster opened its gates for shelter-seeking residents to leave base and return to their homes. MCAS Futenma’s gates remained open until Ginowan City requested that they close their gates after the All-Clear was given.

By 2:00 p.m., Camp Kinser facilities—the exchange, commissary, Kinser Elementary School, and the Yuimaru Child Development Center—restored their services, with students and staff returning to their respective locations.

“Without the rapid response from our Marines, MLCs, and SOFA personnel, this hasty evacuation would not have been possible,” said Pacatte. “Likewise, the strength of our relationship with the local community proved to be a vital asset in the successful evacuation of the local Okinawan residents.”