Japan still suffers from tsunami

Country struggles a year after disaster

Washington PostMarch 11, 2012 

— One year later, nothing is resolved.

The rubble and ocean muck of last March 11 have been scrubbed from every wall, pulled from every basement and picked from every crevasse. Now the debris is piled in terraced mountains at the edge of this town along Japan's tsunami-devastated northeastern coast.

But even after months of cleanup, the reconstruction remains at a starting point, equally capable of taking off or faltering, depending on whether people stick around.

A full recovery, if it's possible, will take at least a decade, authorities say. Residents along the battered coast must be willing to endure trying conditions - prefab houses that don't stay warm; communities that don't provide jobs; grief that doesn't abate - all because they hope that, eventually, they will regain normal lives in functional towns.

It's a bargain that Takahiro Chiba struggles with every day. He says his city, one of the region's largest and hardest hit, feels just livable enough to tolerate, but not yet livable enough to commit to.

"I don't want to stay in Ishinomaki anymore," Chiba says on a Tuesday.

"I'm really thinking we should stay in Ishinomaki," Chiba says on a Thursday.

Chiba sees more hope than he did a year ago. It's not just all the debris that has been cleared away. Workers at the city hall are trying to attract clean-energy projects and offering tax incentives for businesses that relocate here. Lifelines have returned. A department store reopened last week.

The progress of the last year, though, doesn't begin to offset the damage of Japan's greatest crisis since World War II. The triple disaster - an earthquake, a tsunami, a resulting triple meltdown at a nuclear plant - left 19,000 dead and displaced some 342,000 from their homes. Because of public opposition to nuclear power, only two of Japan's 54 reactors are now in operation, prompting energy companies to fire up old thermal plants and import more coal and gas.

At a crossroads

In the aftermath of the disaster, Ishinomaki all but stopped. Gas stations had no fuel, and stores had no food. Neighborhoods had been shredded.

But people here say that cleanup was the easy part - all strategy, no planning. The city only now is "at a crossroads," said Toru Asano, the chamber of commerce chairman.

The hard part begins here, coordinating an economic recovery when thousands are in debt and have no permanent place to live. Some 6,000 have fled, and 7,000 live in temporary housing, units built so hastily and with so little insulation that one town official likened them to "huts." Tens of thousands of others have seen their lives overturned by the disaster. In a town of 153,000, one of every three homes was damaged or destroyed by the wave. Many of those people have crowded into relatives' homes or remained in damaged houses to avoid temporary housing.

The tsunami surged head-on at the food and paper factories on thewaterfront, then charged up the Kitakami River and spilled into the main shopping areas downtown. A city that once depended on the water, primarily for its fishing industry and ports, had been deluged by it.

The wave itself drew a new line between haves and have-nots, and those who lived a few miles inland, close to the four-lane roads and suburban megamalls, actually saw their land prices skyrocket. Disaster survivors rushed to rebuild in the spots that hadn't been leveled in the first place - a "land war," one resident called it. The many who couldn't afford to build new homes, or couldn't find land, felt stuck.

"Ishinomaki has been divided into two parts - heaven and hell," said community center worker Toshihiko Fujita, who lives in a condemned and unheated home where feral cats roam the first floor.

Unemployed by tsunami

The Chibas lived and worked on the have-not side of town. The family - Chiba, 39; his wife, Noriko, 36; their three children, ages 6 to 11, and Chiba's father, Takashi, 68 - live together on the second floor of a partially damaged home, where on March 11, 2011, Chiba's mother, in the garage at the time, was killed by the tsunami.

The family sushi restaurant, Sukeroku, is still standing, but it was ransacked by the wave and faces several major problems if it ever reopens. The 9.0-magnitude earthquake caused the land to sink, meaning that Sukeroku - like other downtown businesses - is suddenly prone to flooding. Amid the suburban migration, few customers come downtown anyway; a year later, 40 percent of citywide business activity is knocked out, but the low-lying areas remain almost entirely empty.

Chiba, once a sushi chef, printed new business cards that read, above his name, "UNEMPLOYED (by Tsunami)."

In the weeks after the disaster, Chiba subsisted chiefly on cigarettes and cleaned out the family garage, where three cars had been destroyed. The family, with no running water, covered their toilets with plastic bags and threw the waste into the streets, already knee-high with debris. The situation, his wife said, "felt hopeless."

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