Debris, stress, uncertainty dog region's slow recovery

Nation marks first anniversary of disasters

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Japan on Sunday marked a year since the massive earthquake and tsunami rocked Tohoku and its Pacific coastline on March 11, 2011, leaving nearly 20,000 people confirmed dead or missing.

The disasters and the meltdowns they triggered at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant combined to create the greatest political and humanitarian calamity the nation has faced since the end of World War II in 1945.

They also sparked an unprecedented outpouring of domestic and international sympathy and volunteerism, while the Fukushima crisis launched a worldwide backlash against nuclear power and a growing interest here in renewable energies.

A year later, recovery efforts continue but the pace remains slow and uneven. Officially, the death toll stands at 15,854, with another 3,155 missing. A total of 343,935 people have been evacuated, and more than 6,000 were injured.

Throughout the nation Sunday, official and unofficial memorial ceremonies took place and moments of silence were observed at 2:46 p.m., the time the quake struck. In the devastated coastal city of Ishinomaki, Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama spoke at an event attended by over 2,200 people.

“We lost more than 3,000 residents, the greatest loss of life in any of the disaster areas. Although the Self-Defense Forces, police and rescue workers continue their search efforts, it is still hard to believe so many remain missing,” he said.

At first glance, it appears parts of Ishinomaki, population 152,000, are well on the road to recovery.

Bars, cafes and restaurants around the main railway station are coming back to life again thanks, residents say, to an influx of people hired to remove the millions of tons of debris generated by the tsunami.

But physical reconstruction of the town, and the rebuilding of shattered lives, is expected to take years, if not decades. At least 3,280 Ishinomaki residents lost their lives and another 553 are still officially listed as missing. As of January, nearly 17,000 had not returned to their previous places of residence and were living in either prefabricated temporary housing or apartments.

“Some people are doing OK, especially those in the real estate business or in some service industries. But elderly residents, and especially those in the agricultural and fishing industries, were hit particularly hard,” says Kumi Kawamura, an Ishinomaki resident and member of a local environmental group.

In Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, the three hardest-hit prefectures, a total of 264,391 people continue to live in alternative housing.

As Tohoku’s communities struggle to recover, one of the most daunting challenges is figuring out how to dispose of the millions of tons of tsunami-generated debris cluttering the ports of cities like Ishinomaki, Minamisanriku and Kesennuma. Long-term reconstruction plans are contingent on the debris being cleared within the next couple of years.

But as of Friday, just 6.3 percent of the 22.5 million tons of debris had been removed, as local governments in other parts of the country refuse requests to take it, fearing it may be tainted by radiation from the Fukushima plant or contain harmful dioxins. Following test burnings, the government has denied that.

Miyagi Prefecture Gov. Yoshihiro Murai said about 70 percent of the debris originated in his prefecture.

“When I look at all the debris, I realize that it’s not just simply garbage from houses and roads, but parts of people’s lives, and their memories,” Murai said at Sunday’s ceremony in Ishinomaki.

Ishinomaki alone has nearly 6.1 million tons, and the town has no clear plan for disposing of it. Because 70 percent of the debris is estimated to be wood, the Forestry Agency plans to fund four wood-burning power plants throughout Tohoku, including one in Ichinoseki.

These plants will burn 200,000 tons of debris annually and generate enough electricity to power 30,000 households. However, they are only a partial solution to a hugely complex issue that needs to be addressed immediately.

Beyond statistics, reconstruction problems and plans for the future, there is an ongoing effort to learn from the experience and prepare, as best as possible, for the next disaster.

The medical response to the quake and tsunami is now being reviewed by the government, medical, and NGO communities, especially efforts in Miyagi that were led by Tadashi Ishii, the prefecture’s medical coordinator for the disaster.

“We faced a number of health and medical issues in the immediate days after March 11, including problems like a lack of toilets and sanitation issues in the shelters, and ensuring relief teams got sufficient types and amounts of medicine to the various centers,” said Ishii.

“Other problems were more personal in nature. On the front lines, physicians and medical experts learned how to dispense with hierarchy and ‘saving face.’ In that kind of a disaster, there is no time for extended deliberations,” he said.

Fears that the crowded shelters would lead to major outbreaks of disease never materialized, and the shelters were completely closed last autumn. Attention has turned from immediate emergency medical needs to medium- and long-term physical and psychological issues.

Reports that up to 20 percent of Ishinomaki and nearby Onagawa residents who refused to move after the tsunami are suffering from insomnia or are displaying psychiatric problems have not been officially confirmed. But studies by academic experts and local media show disturbing trends.

The Miyagi Prefecture-based Kahoku Shinpo newspaper and Tohoku University last week released results of a joint survey of those living in a dozen prefectural towns and villages damaged by the quake and tsunami, which measured changes in disaster victims’ mental and physical states.

More than 70 percent of victims said they could not relax, while over 60 percent said they had problems concentrating.

In addition, the survey found that over 30 percent could not establish a plan for either rebuilding their homes or relocating somewhere else because they faced too many unknowns, thus contributing to their worries. In the town of Minamisanriku, this figure was nearly 54 percent.

Such concerns about unknowns have younger Tohoku residents particularly concerned. Satoshi Abe, 20, an engineering student in Sendai with an interest in renewable energy, is originally from Ishinomaki. But despite various initiatives announced by the central and prefectural governments in Tohoku to promote wind, solar, and biomass industries, he is not optimistic that there will be a job for him in his hometown.

“There’s something of a ‘disaster bubble’ going on right now in Ishinomaki and other towns, as money pours in for reconstruction. But it’s tough to see job opportunities for young people like me in these towns,” he said.