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Tsunami-hit Japan towns still struggling

Ishinomaki, one of the worst tsunami-hit areas, is working to clear 6.85 million tonnes of waste by the end of next year. (PHOTO: KUN LAI LENG)

Publication Date : 11-10-2012

 

A two-storey building still lies on its side near the coast of Onagawa. The uprooted structure is a reminder of the destruction left behind by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated this north-eastern Japanese seaside town of about 10,000 people in March last year.

The north-east is still trying to get back on its feet after the disaster.

In Onagawa, a town of seagulls and bathhouses, which saw more than 300 deaths in the disaster, fresh soil is being filled in after the ground sunk about a metre.

In Ishinomaki, a city of about 150,000 people, thousands still stay in prefabricated temporary homes, many fishermen sit idle, and a hundred years' worth of waste such as discarded tatami mats and wooden chips await disposal.

Ishinomaki was one of the worst hit by the March 11 disaster: About 3,200 residents died, one-sixth of the more than 18,000 people killed in the country that day.

About 72 per cent of the city's 74,000 houses were damaged by the 9.0-magnitude quake and an ensuing wave so huge that it swept through a hospital on a hill 16m above sea level.

"At that point, the town was completely under water," said Yoshihisa Nishikawa, executive director of Kahoku Shimpo, a major newspaper in north-east Japan. One challenge now for affected towns and cities is to resettle residents on higher and safer ground, he added.

"Another challenge is the recovery of the economy, especially fishing, the pillar of Ishinomaki's economy," he told visiting reporters from Southeast Asia through an interpreter.

Kunio Sunou, head of the city's fish market, agreed. He said the catch is only 30 to 40 per cent of what it used to be, as debris in the waters makes it hard to fish.

The disaster destroyed ports and fishing boats, leaving an area known for bounty like tuna and bonito high and dry. Even now, only six in 10 businesses have resumed operations in some way, said Sunou.

Sales of fish products from Ishinomaki have also been sluggish. Consumers worry about food safety, although the city is about 120km from the Fukushima nuclear plant that leaked radiation.

Many factory owners have not repaid bank loans from before the disaster and need to borrow more. "Even if they resume business, they would continue to run a loss for 10 years," said Sunou.

While there was strong camaraderie initially, many now feel anxious. "After the tsunami, everyone was in the same boat. They had nothing but supported one another," he said.

"Now, there are people restarting their businesses. But some may be just sitting down and watching another open for business. They make comparisons and it becomes a source of stress."

The sense of solidarity is also fraying in other ways.

"They have never lived in such dense places. They feel they don't have much privacy and can hear sounds from next door," said Nishikawa of those in shelters.

There have also been reports of solitary deaths, with residents being displaced from their former communities and neighbours, and losing their support networks.

The authorities have come up with a 10-year plan to rebuild and rejuvenate, at a cost of more than 1 trillion yen (US$13 billion). Among other things, new homes would be built on land reclaimed from rice fields, roads would be raised and evacuation towers built in areas near the sea.

Materials for rebuilding could also come from recycling debris.

A waste disposal facility with five incinerators has been built to clear, by the end of next year, up to 6.85 million tonnes of waste, a hundred times what the city throws out a year.

"The volume of debris is so large that other prefectures are helping us to clear," said spokesman Takemaru Suzuki.

Volunteers from outside are chipping in. Some teach residents skills like making necklaces, others organise visits to the area to generate income for the locals.

Recovery is not just about money but also rebuilding a sense of community, said Mr Sunou. Some residents have banded together to hold activities to encourage those who have moved away to return.

Ultimately, recovery requires everyone's efforts, said Sunou, noting: "We are trying to solve problems never experienced by anyone before."

 

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