Shunsuke Kita and Katsuro Oda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
YAMAMOTOCHO, Miyagi–Aya Nagaki has been staying in a tent with her 12-year-old son and her parents since the start of April. However, this is no family camping trip.
“I naturally wake up at 5:30 a.m. due to the sunlight and sounds coming from other tents nearby,” said Nagaki, 37, a life insurance salesperson.
Nagaki is staying in one of 33 white tents neatly lined up next to a central community center in Yamamotocho. The tent is only the size of about five tatami mats, but it affords more privacy than the crowded evacuation center set up after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and more space than her car. There is room inside for a wooden table, futon, hot-water bottles and some clothes.
Most of the about 100 evacuees living in the “tent village” had been taking shelter in their cars, rather than the cramped shelters where privacy is a rare luxury. But seven weeks after the disaster, Nagaki and many others are reaching their limit.
The March 11 tsunami flooded Nagaki’s house. She went to an evacuation center, with her family but was shocked by the crowded conditions where they had to live close to complete strangers.
She felt she had no choice but to live in her car with her family because it was difficult to move around the evacuation center because her 73-year-old father and 65-year-old mother have leg conditions that restrict their mobility.
However, Nagaki only started the engine when absolutely necessary because gasoline was in such short supply after the disaster. On days when it snowed, she was too cold to fall asleep.
Desperate to take a hot bath and find some respite from the harsh conditions, she stayed in a Japanese-style inn in Wataricho in the prefecture for three nights with her family at the end of March. It cost 85,000 yen for the four of them. “There’s no way I can afford to keep staying here,” Nagaki recalled thinking.
She decided to live in a tent, which was provided by the town government, rather than stay in her car due to fear about so-called economy-class syndrome, a condition that can affect people who stay immobile in one position for long periods.
Although the tent provided more privacy than the evacuation center, being exposed to the elements presented new problems. Strong winds blew away the tent once, and water seeped up through the floor the day after a heavy rainfall.
Nagaki wants a more permanent roof over her head. She has found a house she wants to move into in Tomiyamachi, about 50 kilometers from Yamamotocho, and has applied for a loan. Nagaki, who is currently taking disaster leave from her job, has her fingers crossed the loan manager will have some good news for her.
“I’m not sure if my loan will be approved,” she said.
Moving into homes a slow process
Thirty-three tents cover the gateball ground at a general gymnasium in Onagawacho, Miyagi Prefecture, where about 770 people are taking shelter seven weeks after the March 11 disaster.
The khaki tents were provided by Self-Defense Forces members who had seen the plight of disaster victims forced to live in cars because shelters were full.
Hiroshi Kashimura, 36, a company employee, serves as a “village head” who conveys information from town offices to evacuees in the tent village. Kashimura’s house was damaged in the disaster, so he stayed in a car for about 10 days until he could shift into a tent with his family.
His 8-year-old daughter goes to a primary school, and has become friends with other children in the tent village. People in the village sometimes share their food.
Kashimura’s wife, Satsuki, 36, said a bond had formed among the tent residents as they endured some dark times.
“We came to share a sense of unity while we were huddling around open fires to keep warm, rather than staying in the freezing cars,” she said.
However, living in a tent has its inconveniences. Fetching food and water from an evacuation center can be time-consuming, and it can be difficult to keep up with the latest information from the area.
Between 20 and 30 people are still staying in cars near the gymnasium. Some are waiting until a spot opens up in the evacuation center, having temporarily left the town.
In Onagawacho, the first group of 57 households is scheduled to move into makeshift homes from May 1. Temporary housing for a second group will be built soon. However, with 1,909 evacuees in the town as of Thursday, demand for these homes far outstrips supply.
Hironori Suzuki, planning section chief at the town office, is worried about the housing.
“We hope all the evacuees can move into makeshift houses within six months, but there are limited sites for construction because electricity and water haven’t been restored in some areas,” Suzuki said.