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Train service resumes on final stretch of JR line in disaster-hit Miyagi town, asahi, 3/21/2015

ONAGAWA, Miyagi Prefecture–After a four-year wait, trains are up and running the full length of the restored JR Ishinomaki Line, which was ravaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

The first train left Onagawa Station at 6:12 a.m. on March 21. The first incoming train arrived at 7:30 a.m., greeted by a throng of residents waving flags used to celebrate large catches by fishing boats.

The entire line extends 44.7 kilometers through Miyagi Prefecture, eastward from Kogota Station in Misato to Onagawa Station via Ishinomaki Station in Ishinomaki.

The 2.3-km stretch through the last two stations of Urashuku and Onagawa had remained unconnected after tsunami up to 20 meters high swept the tracks away.

Major facilities, including the Onagawa station building and town government office, as well as 70 percent of all households, were destroyed, and 827 people, accounting for 8 percent of the town’s population, perished.

Though all services on the line were halted due to the disaster, the line’s operator, East Japan Railway Co. (JR East), partially restarted operations in April 2011.

Service on the rest of the line resumed in March 2013, with the exception of the final two stops.

Urashuku and Onagawa stations were reopened to passengers after the completion of work to elevate land in the town in case of a future tsunami. The downtown area where the latter station is located was raised by as much as 15 meters in some areas.

The station’s new building, which was designed to resemble the silhouette of a black-tailed gull spreading its wings, cost 850 million yen ($7 million) to build.

With service now available on the entire line, trains will be making a total of 11 runs a day.

visit to izushima island, onagawa, and public housing

izushima island is a small island, with 2 fishing villages, near onagawa town (politically part of onagawa).

in onagawa, about 300 of the disaster recovery public housing units will be built by local contractors using timber. my friend M san has be involved in organizing the local building companies into a cooperative agreement, so they can be awarded these contracts from the town. the single family detached public housing that is currently under construction on izushima is the first of these projects.

being an island, building on izushima is inconvenient–workers and materials all have to be transported by boat. workers take a small ferry from onagawa every morning, and return every afternoon. building materials are transported by other boats, but both can be interrupted by bad weather, causing construction delays. the current goal is to complete the used before obon, the traditional holiday in august that honors ancestors and home-coming.

however, compared to most of the other sites for public housing in onagawa town (many of which will be raised before construction starts), the land area for public housing on izushima is easier to use, and construction could start earlier.

the other public housing (multi-family reinforced construction) that is already completed in onagawa is the public housing that was build on the municipal athletic field, which also took advantage of available flat land for construction. (although in the process, there was the loss of recreational space).

since the public housing under construction on izushima is the first in this new system of building cooperatives, and different parts are being built by different companies. there are about 30 units planned for construction, 24 in the main area of izushima  (under construction now) next to the current temporary housing, and an additional 7 for the other village on the island (where the land is currently being cleared).

while i was in onagawa, i had a chance to visit izushima with M san, and see the current situation.

we took the early morning ferry that the construction workers take. it was a cold morning, and in warm ferry on gentle rocking of the waves, most of the construction workers were quiet or resting, but the ones who were speaking were using almost unintelligible (to me) local dialect, a smooth lulling sound.

on the island, we got a ride to the work site, where construction is nearing completion of some of the units, and foundation work is starting on others. there are 4 house types, that residents can select from.

architecturally, the houses look great. the materials are high quality timber, the labor is local, and organized with a local cooperative of construction companies. i know that this must not have been easy to organize.  but in the context of accepted principles of housing recovery of the international community of practice, this project is doing all the right things.  this project is also well-designed considered in the context of post-disaster housing recovery after recent events in japan (1995 hanshin-awaji earthquake in kobe, and the 2004 chuetsu earthquake). this project is a small scale collective relocation and will provide residents with high-quality single family public housing. the current temporary housing on izushima are all on one site, but the new public housing will be built in two locations; although this is more complicated and expensive for the construction process, it allows that the residents of terama (the other village–the main village on the island is also called izushima) will have their own reconstructed village.

we walked around the island a little bit, on the main road that runs from one harbor to the other, along the high land area in the center of the island. before 3.11, there was an elementary school on the island, but it has been closed, and abandoned with all the items left just the way they were. the school was in the  high land areas, near where the new public housing is being built.  but the population of school-aged children had dwindled–the last year the new 1st grade class had only 1 boy, who is the grandson of a local man we wind up spending a few hours with. he is 60, and when he entered the elementary school, there were 50 kids in the 1st grade class. he gives us a tour of his garden, taking us from plant to plant, telling the story of each one, where it came from, when it blooms, its name. he has a beautiful garden, and his enjoyment of giving a guided tour of his plants was clear.  his garden is surrounding a new house that he build in the last 5-10 years, which was intended to be the home 4 generations, but he sons’ families have moved away.  before the tsunami, he ran a gas station in the harbor for boats. but the fishing activity has stopped because there are no younger people to do the work.  and families with children have moved away because there is now no school left on the island.

with the excuse of continuing the “garden tour”, we visit one neighbor’s house, who have a beautiful view of terama harbor from above. this neighbor is in his 80s, and his daughter (in her 40s) is the youngest resident on the island. her job is to bring the newspapers to island by boat. she also comes to the harbor to tie up our return ferry when it arrives later.

having coffee and tea with these residents, i was struck by the desperate  situation of this island. in the disaster area, it is not uncommon for people to say “please come and live here” to younger visitors from outside (like us). but the way that these folks from terama asked this was different–it was a more serious request, and came from a place of knowing that their village doesn’t have a future without younger residents.  islanders are hoping that the government will build a bridge to the mainland, and that this will help support the economy. (whether or not the bridge will actually be built is not certain).

i’ve spoken with many people in different disaster areas in japan and in other countries. i’ve heard a lot of terrible, traumatic, sad sad stories. from people whose lives have been destroyed, who have experienced huge loss. of course, these conversations are hard, and can be painful and sad. but they also often show the resilience of human beings, the incredible power of people to help each other, and the strength that people have to look forward.  in temporary housing, or in a landscape of destruction, people have the ability to think about the next step.  or as a researcher coming from outside, can see a future for these residents. this is not to say that the future recovery is usually or always good. is it often not good, and can cause bigger problems for residents, and this is the crux of the reason we research disasters, to try to improve things, to minimize the damage it causes for people. however, as a researcher, i can see multiple outcomes for the future, and some of these outcomes would be good for the residents.

but here, speaking with people who haven’t lost their houses or family members to the tsunami directly, there seems to be no potential for a good outcome.  they are right up against the program of the aging society of japan, one in which the young people more away and rural areas are becoming increasingly depopulated. of course we all know these facts and this situation. but it is different to see it directly. and it is sad, in a different way than what i am used to.

so even if the public housing that is being built on this island is the best possible (residents would probably like slightly larger houses with more space around them) but we can say they are the best public housing that could be built right now. but in this larger context of a shrinking villages, unused harbors, aging residents, it doesn’t seem like enough.

English translation tells tales of 100 Miyagi tsunami survivors, japan times, 3/25/14

It was the inspiration and eagerness of Hitomi Nakanishi, an Australia-based Japanese scholar, that led to the publication of an English-language book with recollections and photos of the experiences of 100 survivors of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in and around Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

Nakanishi, 37, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Canberra, told The Japan Times last week that she wanted as many people as possible around the globe to know about the book, which she believes will help prepare them if a disaster hits their own country.

The book is an English translation of the Japanese version, which was published in 2012 by Tokyo-based publisher Junposha Co.

The same publisher released the English version on March 10 to commemorate the third anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami.

The stories in “Surviving the 2011 Tsunami: 100 Testimonies of Ishinomaki Area Survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake” first ran in the Ishinomaki Kahoku newspaper from June 2011 to March 2012 in a series titled “My March 11.”

The newspaper is published daily by Sanriku Kahoku Shimpo Co., headquartered in Ishinomaki.

Nakanishi came across the Japanese book when she visited the newspaper publisher in summer 2012 during a tour of the tsunami-affected areas in Tohoku.

She was immediately struck by the astounding accounts of the tsunami that swept the coasts of Ishinomaki, Higashi Matsushima and Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture, and soon came up with the idea of publishing the book in English.

“I asked via the Internet for volunteers who would translate Japanese into English, and soon managed to gather 26 volunteers — both Japanese and Australian,” she said.

Sixteen Australian volunteers — most of them English teachers that Nakanishi found with the help of the Japanese Embassy in Canberra — did the editing and proofreading.

One of the subjects in the book, 35-year-old Yukako Sasaki, vividly describes how, pregnant and with just days to go before her due date, she climbed the stairs to the third floor of her sister’s house — worried all the while that her water might break and she would suddenly give birth. With her niece, she spent the night in the house while down below muddy floodwaters shattered the front door and inundated the first floor.

“After a sleepless night, the piled-up cars and the people who had most likely lost their lives were visible from the window. I could tell that something really awful had happened, but if I looked outside, my pains would appear so I waited inside the storage room to be rescued,” Sasaki is quoted as saying in the book.

She gave birth to a boy six days later.

Another survivor, Masayoshi Kotono, 49, recalls: “Houses and cars being washed away by the tsunami, raging with fire, were now coming toward me. I would rather drown than be burned to death, I said to myself and jumped into the water. It was perhaps this desperate decision that determined my fate.

“No matter how hard I tried to swim, I was swept back to the hillside again and again by the force of the waves. I couldn’t reach the building. Just when I felt the muscles in my arms and legs had reached their limits, I grabbed on to some rubble that just happened to come floating toward me. I was washed away several hundred meters and then managed to crawl onto a house I had landed on by chance,” he said in his testimony.

Nakanishi cited two reasons for seeing her book project through.

For one thing, she believed that people around the world could use it to prepare for a possible disaster.

“One can find many tips in the book on how the Japanese prepare for a disaster in daily life on a personal level — such as which route to take and where to evacuate, how one can cooperate with the neighbors, etc.,” she said.

“This is very useful for the people of the world to know — especially for people that live in areas that may be prone to natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami. They can apply the knowledge and information from what is written in this book. It’s important to let them know how important, and how much difference it will make for each person to prepare for a disaster.”

Secondly, Nakanishi said, she thinks the knowledge and experience contained in the book can also be useful in the field of urban planning. For example, “even with a 5-cm water level difference, some towns were washed away, and some weren’t,” she said.

“In the 2011 tsunami, water came from different parts of the ocean in a complex form. I think this can be sample material to investigate further about landscape and urban planning,” she added.

Mina Nishisaka, 35, a volunteer translator based in Tokyo, said that she couldn’t stop crying when she translated the stories.

“The stories were so vivid that I had to stop typing many times — just thinking about the horrific experiences the survivors had to go through,” she said.

“For those of us who did not actually experience the Tohoku disaster, the horrific scenes we witnessed that day (on TV and other sources) are not as vivid as they were three years ago. People tend to forget, and sometimes that is one way to move on, but this book reminds me that we must not forget the lives lost and the precious lessons we learned from this tragic disaster.”

She added that giving the stories an English voice “allows these lessons to be shared all over the world.”

“Keeping the voices of the tsunami survivors alive is one of the most important things we can do to save lives when and if another disaster should strike,” she said.

Another volunteer translator, Motoko Kimura, 35, said that not only does the book provide a good lesson about the tsunami disaster that many can learn from, but each story also tells the reader about “the value of human lives, human dignity amidst despair, and the courage and spirit of cooperation among the victims at the time of the disaster.”

“It’s often difficult for Japanese information to reach the world due to the language barrier — especially such things as the truth of the March 11 disaster,” she said.

“I hope that as many people as possible from abroad — including those who live in Japan, those from countries that have earthquakes, and countries that are now trying to recover from war or a disaster — to take a look at the book.”

Project leader Nakanishi said that disaster prevention and reduction are being emphasized today, and that it’s important “to learn from the disasters that already happened, and prepare ourselves for the future.”

“In this book, there are so many photos and maps, and the words of the survivors,” Nakanishi said. “I think it’s a very rare piece of publication. I would like lots of libraries around the world to possess the book and use it as valuable information in the years to come.”

THREE YEARS AFTER: Miyagi town starts demolition of proposed 3/11 memorial , asahi, 3/4/14

ONAGAWA, Miyagi Prefecture–Demolition work began here March 3 on a toppled building that many townspeople wanted to preserve as a memorial to the devastation caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

The four-story Onagawa Supplement building, which was built around 1967, was knocked over when tsunami waves an estimated more than 10 meters high destroyed much of the fishing town center on March 11 three years ago.

Despite a movement to keep the toppled concrete building as is, Onagawa town officials decided to demolish the structure to prevent it from hampering reconstructing efforts.

Susumu Chiba, 52, who operated a health food store in the Onagawa Supplement building, and his family of five lived in the structure at the time of the disaster. They survived by fleeing to higher ground and later moved to his wife’s hometown in Aomori Prefecture.

Chiba had few words to say about the demolition.

“I am away from there now,” he said.

Although a rare occurrence, two other buildings remained intact after being toppled by the tsunami in Onagawa.

One, the four-story Enoshima Kyosai Kaikan building, is scheduled for demolition by autumn. The other, the two-story Onagawa “koban” (police box), will be preserved as a memorial.

The disaster killed 569 people in Onagawa and left three still missing, according to the town’s website.

Private Sector To Take Over Quake Rebuilding Effort, nikkei, 6/15/12

TOKYO (Nikkei)–The government will tap general contractors and other private-sector companies to handle the planning of earthquake rebuilding projects from beginning to end, a move designed to ease the pressing burden on localities and speed up reconstruction.

Public works projects in Japan typically keep the surveying and planning process separate from the actual construction, with city, town and village governments contracting out each step along the way. Local governments in the areas hardest hit by the March 2011 quake continue to scramble to address shortages in personnel necessary for reconstruction planning.

The Reconstruction Agency and the Ministry of Land and Infrastructure seek to implement construction management practices — which are commonplace for public works projects in the U.S. and the U.K. — to streamline the process. Reconstruction Minister Tatsuo Hirano and Land and Infrastructure Minister Yuichiro Hata will announce the rollout of the new scheme after a cabinet meeting Friday.

Under the arrangement, a private-sector company is assigned to oversee projects from the design stage through construction. It will place construction orders, set up contracts and oversee quality management and other processes on behalf of localities. This will enable projects to enter construction as soon as designs are drawn up, making it faster for rebuilding to move forward.

The overseeing firm will hire construction companies and consultants for each segment of a project, such as repairing roads and rezoning communities. The government anticipates cost savings resulting from innovations and ideas offered by the private-sector construction managers.

The city of Higashi Matsushima and town of Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture will be the first to adopt construction management processes starting next month.

Higashi Matsushima asked the central government and others for the dispatch of 64 specialists in civil engineering and other technical fields. But so far, only 45 have been assigned to arrive through the end of July.

(The Nikkei, June 15 morning edition)


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