More than 89,000 evacuees are still living in prefabricated temporary housing in northeastern Japan three and a half years after the 3/11 disaster.
The hard-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima reported that as of the end of August, 89,323 people who lost their homes to the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami or were displaced because of the nuclear accident are living in 41,384 temporary housing units in 49 municipalities.
The temporary housing units were only built to last two years.
After the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, it took five years for all residents who moved to temporary accommodation to relocate to permanent housing.
But in the Tohoku disaster, it will likely take longer for the evacuees to find places to settle permanently.
The Reconstruction Agency said the construction of permanent housing units to accommodate evacuees and preparation of land plots for disaster-affected communities will be completed in just 18 municipalities by the end of fiscal 2015, the fifth anniversary of the disaster.
As for the remaining 31 municipalities, local governments will extend the use of temporary housing on a yearly basis as long as permanent housing to accommodate the residents remains short, the Cabinet Office said.
In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, which has the largest number of households who lost their homes to the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami, the city government plans to construct housing units and prepare land plots to accommodate 7,660 households.
But only about 53 percent will be completed by fiscal 2015. The land development projects to create housing lots to accommodate the disaster-affected communities will not be completed until fiscal 2017, city officials said.
“We have no choice but to maintain the temporary housing until then,” a city official said.
In 13 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture, the completion of permanent housing for evacuees is nowhere in sight as local governments are still in the process of negotiating with landowners to obtain land plots.
In areas around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, decontamination work and recovery of infrastructure lag behind schedule, and it remains unknown when all evacuees can return home.
In addition to the 89,000 people in temporary housing, there are about 90,000 people who live in 38,000 public and private housing units that are rented by local governments on a temporary basis in the three prefectures.
The government had set the duration period for temporary housing at two years, and the units are becoming increasingly decrepit. Many residents have complained about health problems caused by stress from living in cramped temporary housing.
NATORI, Miyagi — A large number of residents at a temporary housing complex in this tsunami-hit city face eviction due to landowners’ demands to return the premises, it has been revealed.
The Natori Municipal Government said on May 19 that it is demanding residents at the Medeshima Tobu temporary housing complex in Natori move out to other temporary housing compounds, following demand from a landowners’ union to return the premises to them. The residents had moved into the complex in the wake of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
The move is the largest-ever eviction demand in the three disaster-hit prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima. Residents at the Medeshima temporary housing facility voiced opposition to the move during a briefing session held by the Natori Municipal Government and the Miyagi Prefectural Government late on May 19.
The Medeshima housing complex is the city’s largest such facility, accommodating 322 residents in 162 households from the Yuriage district of the city — where nearly 800 residents died or went missing in the tsunami. Immediately after the disaster, the prefectural government leased the land lots rent-free from the landowners’ union on a two-year contract and built the provisional housing complex. Last year, the lease was extended for another year until the end of this June, though the prefecture had to pay rent.
However, the landowners’ union recently showed reluctance to make yet another contract renewal, citing a land development plan. The union has indicated that it is poised to begin land development work in part of the compounds as early as October.
“We will negotiate with the union to the end, but it would be difficult unless at least half of the residents relocate to other places,” a city official said. The city will solicit residents who will agree to move out as early as this coming summer and will demolish vacated temporary housing units thereafter. Because the prefecture’s offer to subsidize residents who move into private rented apartments has ended, residents at the Medeshima housing facility will be urged to relocate to other prefabricated temporary dwellings in the city.
However, the other temporary housing units are dispersed at six separate locations in the city and can only accommodate 112 households. Therefore, the city is planning to purchase part of the land at the Medeshima complex from the landowners’ union and retain some of the temporary housing units there.
“We will give consideration to households with children and those in need of nursing care, but we will at best retain nine buildings (for 72 households) at the Medeshima complex,” said a city official.
The city has decided to reconstruct residences in the Yuriage district, but a series of planning revisions due to opposition from some residents who hope to relocate to other areas have withheld the project from going ahead. Many of the residents at the Medeshima complex have no prospects for rebuilding their own homes.
“If we residents are to be separated after giving it our all together, what were the past three years for? I want the city to at least allow everyone to relocate to the same place,” said a 51-year-old resident of the complex.
Under the Disaster Relief Act, temporary housing units are provided to disaster victims for up to two years, after which the central and local governments usually extend the period each year. As of the end of April, there were 22,095 temporary housing units in Miyagi Prefecture and 13,984 provisional housing units in Iwate Prefecture. Of them, some 40 percent and just over 50 percent, respectively, were built on privately-owned land. With more than three years having passed since the disaster, the move to demand the return of private land is expected to increase.
In the meantime, a total of 175 temporary housing units had been demolished in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures by the end of April. Most of them had been built on public land and were torn down because residents had moved out or the land lots needed to be used for the construction of permanent housing complexes for disaster victims or be turned back into school playgrounds. Only 17 of those housing units were demolished due to the expiration of private land lease contracts.
Land readjustment work on the premises where the Medeshima temporary housing complex now stands began in 1999. A prefectural official showed understanding toward the move among landowners to demand the return of private land used for makeshift housing.
“Landowners have their own plans for land use. As it’s been several years since the quake disaster, there will be growing calls for the return of their land,” the official said.
In the wake of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, it took about five years for all municipalities to see their temporary housing units wrap up their roles. While local governments affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake have begun consolidating temporary housing units, there remain such challenges as how to maintain local communities after relocating residents from one temporary housing complex to another.
As of the end of January, at least 97 people affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 11, 2011, had died unattended in temporary housing units in disaster-hit Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, information obtained from police headquarters in the three prefectures.
Long periods of evacuee life have caused many people to grow isolated or develop physical or mental problems. Local governments and social welfare organizations are taking measures to keep an eye on such people by mobilizing large numbers of staffers or installing sensors in temporary housing units.
There is no precise definition of the Japanese term kodokushi, meaning “solitary death,” and police do not record statistics on such deaths.
The Yomiuri Shimbun therefore asked the Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectural police about “cases in which people living alone in temporary housing units were found dead in their units” to compile an estimated number of cases.
By prefecture, 47 people were found dead in such conditions in Miyagi Prefecture, 22 in Iwate Prefecture and 28 in Fukushima Prefecture. Men comprised 71 of these people, more than twice as many as women at 26. Among the people who died, 58 were aged 65 or older, accounting for about 60 percent of all the solitary deaths in temporary housing units.
Yoshimitsu Shiozaki, a professor emeritus at Kobe University who is familiar with issues concerning solitary deaths, said of these findings: “Many elderly men cannot cook, so they became unable to maintain a balanced diet as they did before the disaster, or they develop a habit of turning to alcohol to alleviate psychological pain. As a result, they can easily fall ill.”
In the wake of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, many people died alone and unnoticed in temporary housing units. According to the Hyogo prefectural police, 188 people died unattended in the three years beginning in 1995. Even as Hyogo disaster victims have moved to public disaster reconstruction housing complexes, such cases have continued to occur frequently, with 1,057 people in total having died unattended as of the end of 2013.
In the three prefectures devastated by the March 11, 2011, earthquake, the number of occupied temporary housing units peaked at 48,628. The figure is nearly identical to the peak of 46,617 temporary housing units occupied in the wake of the 1995 Hanshin earthquake.
Comparing on that simple metric, it is possible to conclude that the number of people having died alone and unnoticed after the 2011 disaster has been kept to less than half that after the 1995 earthquake.
However, the number of unattended deaths after the 2011 earthquake has been growing each year, with 16 in 2011, 38 in 2012 and 41 in 2013. If the roughly 61,000 housing units rented by local governments from the private sector were to be included in the calculations, the number of solitary death cases would likely increase.
In November, a woman in her 80s was found dead in a bathtub at a temporary housing unit in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, where she lived alone. It was found that she died close to a week earlier, due to illness.
The same temporary housing facility houses around 220 households who have taken refuge after evacuating from the Fukushima town of Tomioka near the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
“We thought she had been away visiting her family living nearby,” Nobuo Kawakami, the 70-year-old head of the facility’s residents association, said of the woman.
After the woman’s death, the association has made it a custom to have the 40-odd residents who live alone put up yellow flags near their doors every morning to let their neighbors know that they are well.
“We’ve gotten the consent of residents to use spare keys to enter their rooms if we are unable to contact them for two days,” Kawakami said. “We don’t want to see any more residents die alone.”
In the areas affected by the 2011 disaster, various measures have been taken to prevent people from dying alone.
In Miyagi Prefecture, about 800 people, including those affected by the disaster, have been employed to watch over such elderly people and provide them with assistance. The Iwate Prefectural Council of Social Welfare also has had around 180 people patrolling temporary housing units and informing health workers when they find matters of concern at housing units.
The Sendai city government, meanwhile, has lent mobile phones to disaster-hit residents who live on their own for use in emergencies. It has also equipped the bathroom doors in temporary housing units with sensors to confirm the safety of the residents. The sensors send a signal if they do not detect any movement of the door for more than 12 hours.
However, some residents find these efforts a nuisance. The city social welfare council in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture has halted daily patrols and reduced the number of patrol to once in every three to seven days.
The council checks mailboxes, whether curtains are left open or drawn and other conditions at the housing units of residents who have declined visits by the workers. But Hideo Otsuki, the council’s secretary general, said: “Watching over them from outside the house has its limits. Those affected by the disaster also need to be aware of the risk of dying alone.”
An NHK survey shows that an increasing number of people who evacuated after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami have left the temporary housing where their families live.
NHK conducts an annual survey at a temporary housing complex in Ishinomaki city, Miyagi Prefecture. The 1,100-unit Kaisei housing complex is the largest in the affected areas.
370 people responded to the 3rd survey this year. 33.2 percent said some family members have gone to live elsewhere. That’s a 40 percent increase from the survey taken 2 years ago.
38.4 percent said their families had to split up because the living space was too small. Some others cited worsening family relations and divorce.
Professor Yasuo Yamazaki of Ishinomaki Senshu University, who studies the lives of the evacuees at the Kaisei complex, says younger people are leaving temporary housing because it is inconvenient to commute to work or school.
He says it is important that municipalities and volunteer groups work together to support those elderly people who tend to get left behind.
Plans to build new public apartments for the nuclear refugees in Fukushima Prefecture are stalling because the prefectural government is struggling to attract bids from contractors.
On Jan. 31, Fukushima announced that a project for a 16-unit concrete apartment complex in the city of Aizuwakamatsu in the western part of the prefecture failed to attract bidders. It failed because the eight private contractors who participated didn’t make offers that matched the prefecture’s budget amid surging demand for labor and materials in disaster-hit Tohoku.
It was Fukushima’s second public housing project to attract bids. Last August, an offer for a 20-unit apartment block in the city of Koriyama also failed twice. The prefecture finally found a contractor after raising the initial price twice.
Efforts to acquire land for new apartments are also stalling as negotiations with landowners are taking longer than expected. Of the 3,700 units scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015, only 60 percent, or 2,360, were ready to be built, unhindered by land acquisition problems.
Because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that unfolded in March 2011, six towns and villages that had to be evacuated — Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba, Namie, Katsurao and Iitate — plan to build “out-of-town” communities where reinforced public apartments play a central role. The prefecture plans to build 4,890 units to house people from these and 13 other municipalities.
The prefecture has not come up with good ideas to expedite public housing, and the evacuees are facing the very real possibility they could be in temporary lodging for years to come. The fastest project to be completed so far is the 20-unit complex in Koriyama, which won’t start accepting residents until October.
When the evacuees move in, the prefectural government plans to let groups of residents who formed close ties in the shelters occupy neighboring units at the new apartments so those relationships can be preserved.
This is a lesson learned from the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, when the shift to permanent public housing severed bonds the evacuees had formed in its aftermath, leaving them socially isolated and leading to a surge in solitary deaths.