Evacuees persevere, eye future

by Junko Horiuchi

Kyodo News

MINAMISANRIKU, Miyagi Pref. — A woman occupies herself by arranging boxes of supplies for evacuees at a sports arena in Minamisanriku on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, one of the communities hit hardest by the magnitude 9.0 quake and massive tsunami on March 11.

Amelia Sasaki, a 30-year Filipino resident of the town who lost her own home in the disaster, says she just needs to keep herself busy.

“I have been staying at my sister-in-law’s house on high ground since the earthquake but I come here for volunteer work because otherwise I would just be in a daze, doing nothing. I would get a headache in the end,” said Sasaki, who is married to a local Japanese man.

Sasaki ran a boxed-lunch store in front of JR Shizugawa Station, now a wreck-strewn building filled with debris. The last time she saw her house was before leaving to do volunteer work at a junior high school in Kesennuma to help international students there follow classes in Japanese, using her expertise in Japanese, English, Spanish and Tagalog.

“It may take over 10 years to go back to normal life. But my husband said that some time we can start a yakitori restaurant on land farther in, and I’m willing to start from zero,” the 55-year-old said.

Next to Sasaki, her 29-year-old son, Ryuichi, who narrowly escaped the tsunami with his father, is helping out with the care packages, putting together supplies of bananas, pocket heaters, milk and diapers.

Sasaki said that although she has more than 15 relatives back home in the Philippines, she has no intention of going back. “I would be sadder in the Philippines . . . without my family.”

The Beachside Arena is the biggest of the 45 shelters in the town and houses around 1,500 evacuees. In Minamisanriku, known for its salmon, oysters and seaweed, around 9,000 people, or half its population, are still missing. About 400 deaths have been confirmed. Some 9,300 people have evacuated.

As the boxes piling up in the gymnasium suggest, the serious supply shortages following the quake have finally been alleviated at the sports arena.

Many say they have gotten used to life as an evacuee and that since they are being given food, plenty of clothes and blankets, as well as a makeshift bathtub by the Self-Defense Forces, they can survive at least physically, unlike other shelters still suffering from such shortages.

But mentally, anxiety about the future grows with every day spent at the shelter. In the 1-km stretch from the arena down to the coastline, jumbles of turned over cars and fishing boats, upside-down refrigerators and loose tatami mats dot the muddy brown landscape, reminding residents the town will not recover in the near future.

“I shouldn’t ask too much and I may be just being selfish. But I want to get back to work and do business,” 62-year-old Yoshio Goto said, leaning on a wall in one of the many neatly boxed areas in the arena’s dark corridors. In a space about 5 meters long and 3 meters wide, Goto and his two daughters spend nights in near freezing temperatures. His wife remains unaccounted for.

The town authorities presented a collective evacuation plan Saturday to move people to 23 shelters in four cities and three towns, including in Yamagata Prefecture. Those interested are required to fill out an application, but many evacuees are having difficulty deciding whether to leave or stay.

“If the new place will give us an opportunity to work, I may consider moving, but since my daughters work here and there is no guarantee that life would be better, I may be better off staying here,” Goto said.

Kazue Sugawara, a 43-year-old housewife, said: “My sons go to a high school around this area so if we move to another place they may not be able to attend their school. Already, they have become more and more discouraged.” Her 70-year-old mother, Shizue, sitting next to her, nodded in agreement.

The main doors to the arena have become an information center where the evacuees can exchange ing important notices. It is filled with lists of the names of missing people, places of burial, insurance firms’ contact details, and times and places for preschool and elementary school graduation ceremonies, including a big sign reading, “The crematory has opened.”

Masakatsu Sasaki, 67, who is staying at the arena with his wife and son, said: “We have no vision here. We can’t rely on aid forever, we have to live by ourselves some day but there is no clear prospect how that’s going to happen.”

“They have food and blankets but they have nowhere to live,” said Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and government relations at Samaritan’s Purse, an American relief organization working together with churches in Sendai to deliver tons of supplies, including hygiene kits, blankets and rolls of plastic sheets.

“The level of destruction is breathtaking. Japan needs a big response from the government and the world,” Isaacs, who has previously been involved in relief work in Haiti, El Salvador, Turkey and China, said.