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Six months on, few signs of recovery Progress held back by debris, lack of jobs and slow planning, japan times, 9/11/11


OTSUCHI, Iwate Pref. — After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami destroyed everything from houses to street lights, the town of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, has been so dark and quiet at night it’s unnerving.

But the light coming from a convenience store that reopened in late July has become a symbol of hope for the community.

“Unless people start reopening their businesses, the town will never take the first steps toward reconstruction,” said Taiko Tanisawa, the 63-year-old owner of the reopened Marutani store, as she warmly greeted customers.

While Tanisawa and her family survived the catastrophe, her house and the store she ran since 1994 were destroyed by the tsunami and an ensuing fire caused by a propane gas leak.

The March 11 disasters killed 799 of Otsuchi’s 16,000 residents, including the mayor, and a further 608 were still missing as of the end of August. In addition, the tsunami either destroyed or damaged about 70 percent of the town’s homes.

“I felt that we should not remain in Otsuchi,” said Tanisawa, who after March 11 considered leaving the town with her family and making a fresh start somewhere else. But she ultimately changed her mind because her neighbors kept encouraging her to reopen. She hopes the locals will interpret her reopened business as a step toward reconstructing the devastated town, even though the new store is only one-fifth the size of the previous one.

Six months after the 9.0-magnitude quake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 15,700 people and left nearly 4,100 missing in the Tohoku region, survivors are trying to move forward and rebuild their shattered lives and communities.

In the worst-hit coastal regions of Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, various restoration efforts have made progress, such as building temporary accommodations for evacuees who lost their homes and had to live in shelters, restoring crippled infrastructure and clearing debris in commercial and residential areas.

But the massive piles of debris kept in temporary storage sites along the coast are just one indicator that a huge amount of work remains to be done.

Creating new jobs is a priority, as many people who worked for businesses that were wrecked in March remain unemployed. A recent labor ministry survey showed that at least 70,000 people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures lost their jobs because of the quake-tsunami catastrophe.

The pace of recovery is slowest in Fukushima Prefecture, where the crisis at the crippled No. 1 nuclear station has forced thousands of residents in the government-set 20-km no-go zone around the leaking plant, as well as some living in radioactive hot spots outside the zone, to evacuate their homes. It remains unclear when, or even if, they will be able to return to their hometowns.

The central and local governments have set a 10-year goal to fully restore disaster-hit areas in the devastated northeast, and plans to rebuild ruined communities have finally started to move forward.

But rebuilding Tohoku won’t come cheap.

According to the central government’s basic reconstruction plan released July 29, reconstruction costs will total at least ¥23 trillion over the coming decade, and cash-strapped local governments are asking the state to finance the bulk of those expenditures.

Experts say rebuilding disaster areas is not simply a matter of returning them to their predisaster state. Redesigning towns and cities must take into account the probability that another monster tsunami will someday strike the region, they say. In addition, plans must factor in the aging populations of the disaster-hit communities, which even before March 11 were shrinking as residents aged and the young moved away in search of work.

“What we need to do is design cities (and towns) in which people can live comfortably and safely,” said Arata Endo, an associate professor at Kogakuin University and an expert on urban planning. “We must make them better places to live in than before, as the size of the communities shrinks.”

Since May, Endo has led a committee that includes architects, disaster management experts and local resident representatives to draw up a plan for rebuilding wrecked districts in the city of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.

The committee is seeking to produce a blueprint of how Kamaishi should ideally look in 20 years’ time, Endo said.

He stressed that it is crucial to solicit residents’ ideas, even though it may not be possible to include them all in the final plan.

The committee will submit its plan later this month to Kamaishi’s disaster rebuilding committee for approval. Providing it gets the green light, the municipal assembly — which was slated to hold an election Sunday — will hammer out the plan’s details.

In the case of Otsuchi, however, recovery and rebuilding efforts have been delayed by the loss of the mayor and dozens of municipal officials in the March disasters. A new mayor wasn’t elected until the end of August.

In the meantime, some residents decided to stand up and take matters into their own hands. In May, Otsuchi native Tomohiro Akazaki and others created a resident council to gather suggestions for rebuilding their ruined town.

“I wanted to be part of rebuilding my hometown. It will be really sad if it disappears,” said Akazaki, 33.

The council held six rounds of discussions with residents and submitted its rebuilding suggestions to Otsuchi’s municipal office in July.

“The town office may ignore the opinion of a single residentbut hopefully they will listen to a group of residents,” Akazaki said.

Of the projected ¥23 trillion reconstruction budget for the next decade, the central government plans to spend ¥19 trillion in the first five years. This includes ¥6 trillion that already has been secured in the first and second extra budgets for fiscal 2011, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s new administration is aiming to submit a third supplementary budget to the Diet in October.

To cover the costs, the government is considering hiking taxes, although no decision has been made on which ones to target.

Kogakuin University’s Endo said the central government must decide swiftly on the projects to be financed by the budget, so that local governments can soon start their rebuilding efforts.

Back in Otsuchi, Tanisawa said she is worried about the town’s future as she fears that many young residents who lost their jobs in the disasters will move away, accelerating Otsuchi’s depopulation. In terms of rebuilding the town, Tanisawa called for more streetlights, because the darkness of the blacked-out town frightens her at night.

“If someone tries to attack my store, no one would come to help me,” she said. Due to safety concerns, she closes her new store at 8 p.m. — her previous business stayed opened until 11 p.m.

“My old neighbors, who are now living in temporary housing far away, also hope to return to their original neighborhoods,” she said. “I hope residents will eventually return, and the town will again shine brightly.”

6 MONTHS ON FROM MARCH 11 DISASTER / Consideration given to how to preserve bldgs, yomiuri, 9/11/11


A two-story police box in Onagawacho, made of reinforced concrete, that was knocked over by the tsunami.

Onagawacho’s reconstruction plan calls for the preservation of four tsunami-hit buildings, including a toppled police box and an office building owned by dietary supplement maker Onagawa Supplement. Surrounding areas will be turned into a memorial park.

“We want there to be two major aspects to the preservation: passing on a record of the damage caused by the disaster to future generations and promoting tourism,” Takuro Kimura, 62, managing director of the Glocal Empowerment, Support and Aid Institute, said at the third meeting of the reconstruction committee.

Yet a committee member chosen from among local residents said, “I couldn’t object when a scholar talked about the ‘academic value’ [of preserving damaged structures].”

Some building owners have turned down proposals to preserve the structures and some residents at a public hearing on the subject said it was painful to see them.

“We’ll think carefully about how to preserve them,” Kimura said.

“I hope the plan doesn’t end up as a pipe dream,” Takanobu Takahashi, 67, head of a buyers’ cooperative association at the Onagawa fish market, said at his prefab office late last month.

Despite the many blueprints for post-disaster reconstruction, Onagawacho currently has no prospects of securing the necessary funds.

Regarding the procurement and development of plots of land for communities to relocate their houses en masse, there is a plan whereby the central government bears 94 percent of the cost through subsidies and other means.

However, there is a upper limit on subsidies, making it highly likely local municipalities will bear a heavy financial burden.

The Miyagi prefectural government did a tentative calculation in June of a post-disaster reconstruction project, including the relocation of residents’ homes. It envisioned a municipality on essentially the same scale as Onagawacho, with about 10,000 people and an initial budget of about 6 billion yen in fiscal 2010.

The prefecture estimated such a project would cost 210.7 billion yen to implement, of which the local government would have to shoulder 116.5 billion yen.

According to these figures, Onagawacho would have to pay about 20 times its actual annual budget for the reconstruction project.

Many local municipalities are drawing up their post-disaster plans based on the steps to be taken by the central government, but Onagawacho drafted its plan fairly quickly.

“I wanted to show the will of our residents early, rather than taking a wait-and-see approach,” Mayor Nobutaka Azumi said.

“With the existing framework, the town’s finances will collapse. We want the central government to respond to our wishes through such measures as creating a new system whereby local municipalities have a small [financial] burden,” he said.

(Sep. 11, 2011)

6 MONTHS ON FROM MARCH 11 DISASTER / Onagawacho fighting for existence / After losing most buildings, hundreds of lives, town quickly maps out reconstruction, yomiuri, 9/11/11

The Yomiuri Shimbun

ONAGAWACHO, Miyagi–Hard hit by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, Onagawacho, Miyagi Prefecture, is fighting for its existence.

The disaster destroyed 80 percent of the town’s buildings and left 829 of its residents dead or missing.

The fisheries industry of the town, which had been one of the nation’s largest saury landing sites in terms of volume, was devastated by the disaster.

Onagawacho has lost little time in mapping out a recovery plan–it launched a reconstruction planning committee only 1-1/2 months after the disaster.

The municipal government submitted a reconstruction plan to the town assembly on Sept. 5, less than six months after the earthquake and tsunami and before most disaster-hit municipalities had completed their plans.

The town’s busiest area faced Onagawa Bay. In areas where debris has been removed, buildings with only their walls remaining dot the landscape.

The Onagawa police box, a two-story ferroconcrete building, remains on its side after being ripped from its foundation.

The tsunami reached about 1.5 kilometers inland, and 5,374 or 82 percent, of the buildings in the town were destroyed or badly damaged.

After the disaster, 5,720 people–more than half the town’s residents–moved to 23 evacuation shelters set up in the town. And about 2,600 residents temporarily evacuated to areas outside the town.

“Unless we present a plan for the future quickly, town residents will begin wondering whether they want to continue living here,” said Onagawa Mayor Nobutaka Azumi, 66.

This sense of urgency led the mayor to establish the town’s reconstruction promotion office on April 15.

In the town government office set up in borrowed space of the Onagawa No. 2 Primary School, Azumi encouraged officials, saying, “We’ll send out a message on [restoration] to town residents by the Bon holiday period.”

Since March 11, many of the officials have been extremely busy distributing goods to the shelters.

Residents, too, are taking an active role in their town’s reconstruction.

One resident said: “The administrative authorities were short of staff. The private sector should also work to rebuild our town.”

People in commercial, industrial, fisheries and tourism sectors living in the shelters held a meeting in late March. On April 19, they established the Onagawacho Fukko Renraku Kyogikai (the Onagawacho reconstruction liaison council).

Like other disaster-hit municipalities, Onagawacho has been worried about depopulation for some time.

Even before the disaster, the town’s population had been declining sharply, from 14,018 in 1990 to 10,059 last year. After the earthquake, it stood at 8,686.

Masanori Takahashi, 61, the head of the town chamber of commerce and industry and also head of the reconstruction council, said, “I thought our town would never be able to revive unless we acted quickly.”

Takahashi’s home was destroyed by the tsunami, and the production lines of a fish-processing company he ran were damaged.

But he shared with the town government officials the view a continued outflow of town residents could threaten the town’s existence.

The town’s committee for reconstruction planning comprises three members of the reconstruction council and 14 local representatives, academics and others.

The committee has held five meetings since May 1 and compiled the final draft of the reconstruction plan on Aug. 10.

Under the plan, the town will be divided into eight zones depending on use–including residential areas and facilities for processing marine products.

The time line of the plan calls for repair and redevelopment of residential areas through fiscal 2012, improvement of infrastructure such as fishing ports from fiscal 2013 through fiscal 2015 and full-fledged reconstruction of fish-processing plants and commercial facilities from fiscal 2016 through fiscal 2018.

(Sep. 11, 2011)

Iwate shuts down last evacuation shelters Prefecture is first among the hardest-hit areas, japan times, 9/1/11


Yamada, Iwate Pref. — Residents of the last four evacuation shelters in Iwate began moving out Wednesday as officials prepared to close all public shelters in the prefecture before the end of the day.

Iwate is the first to do so among the three prefectures hit hardest by the March 11 quake and tsunami.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 17 people were still living in the shelters, all located in the town of Yamada. At the March 13 peak, 54,429 evacuees took shelter in Iwate, with a maximum of 399 shelters available on March 19.

Most public shelters in Fukushima Prefecture also closed Wednesday, while 3,930 people were still in 143 shelters in Miyagi Prefecture as of Tuesday, according to the prefectural governments.

Thousands of Iwate evacuees have moved into temporary housing comprised of 12,683 makeshift apartments and 3,856 private housing units.

Reiko Numazaki, 57, was the last person to move her belongings out of a high school gymnasium in Yamada where at one point 1,277 evacuees took shelter. About 80 volunteer workers helped the last group of evacuees leave.

“I’m anxious about my life going forward, as it is uncertain if my husband can remain in the fishery business,” Numazaki said.

“I hope to move into public housing soon.”

Evacuees also began moving out from the central community center in Yamada.

Two private facilities in the town, where seven evacuees are still living, will serve as shelters until early September after the town office hands over the operation to private management, it said.

School repairs going slow


Sendai — Rebuilding is complete or will soon be finished for only six out of 82 public schools in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures that were severely damaged by the March earthquake and tsunami, according to local boards of education.

With summer vacation over and more than 90 percent of the quake-hit schools still unusable, most local students are still being forced to study in other schools or public buildings.

Reconstruction has not even started at many of the damaged schools as city planners are still pondering how to rebuild their areas, including whether to relocate facilities.

Kesennuma Koyo High School in Miyagi, for instance, is still in a shambles. Water submerged the building up to the fourth floor after the disaster struck.

Its students have been dispersed, temporarily taken in by three other local schools. By November they will all move to a new temporary facility, but it is yet to be decided whether their school will be rebuilt at its original site or moved elsewhere.

Farmer recovers tsunami-hit land


With the aid of bacteria that lowers the level of sodium in soil, a farmer in the city of Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture, harvested 150 tomatoes last month on farmland that was swamped by the March 11 tsunami.


News photo
Vine-ripened: Volunteers harvest tomatoes in Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture, on Aug. 20. KYODO

The cyanobacteria — also called blue-green algae — is found in seawater and sludge on the seafloor. Since it consumes salt when it photosynthesizes, it lowers the level of sodium when mixed in soil.

Farmer Etsuo Iizuka, 62, used the soil on his 1,000-sq.-meter tsunami-damaged farm to plant 400 tomato plants in June. Each yielded about 10 tomatoes.

“The new method uses sludge left on the farmland,” said Kazuma Nishitsuji, 29, president of My Farm, a Kyoto-based agricultural consultancy that developed the method. “We hope to use it on rice fields as well.”

About 20 volunteers helped pick the tomatoes on Aug. 20.

“I’m happy the tomatoes grew better than expected,” said Iizuka. “I want to make it a local brand.”


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