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Loneliness grows as 3/11 evacuees vacate temporary housing

Fukushima Minpo

Even though the tens of thousands of evacuees from the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and ensuing Fukushima nuclear disaster are still living in temporary housing, many others have moved on, making virtual ghost towns out of once busy communities.

As of the end of November, 19,373 people were still in 16,403 temporary housing units in Fukushima, down from the peak of 33,016 people in July 2012. The disaster rescue law stipulates that residents can live in temporary housing for up to two years, but the prefecture extended that to March 2017.

But as more people move into new public housing or elsewhere, some 38 percent of the temporary housing units in Fukushima were vacant as of the end of November, up from 17 percent at the same time in 2013.

“It’s lonely to celebrate the new year in a temporary housing community when residents move out one by one,” said Masanori Takeuchi, 65, as he gazed intently at unlit units. Takeuchi heads a neighborhood council at a temporary housing community in Aizuwakamatsu.

When he moved in four years and five months ago, almost all 83 units were full. But now there are only about 40 people in 19 units, with five families planning to move in the spring.

As the vacancies grow, fewer people show up when Takeuchi and others hold barbecue parties and other events. When university volunteers throw get-togethers for the community, there are times when there are more staffers than residents.

“Worries that their neighbors will leave them could trigger mental illness,” said an official with a prefecture-affiliated social welfare association.

According to the Cabinet Office, 11 people committed suicide in Fukushima between January and July this year, apparently due to the events of 3/11. Of those, two were residents of temporary housing.

The government of Fukushima is aware of the situation and has been struggling to hire enough staff to monitor their mental health and well-being. Fukushima wanted to hire 400 people for the job this fiscal year, but had only managed to fill 274 of the slots as of Dec. 1. One of the reasons is the lack of job security: The positions are offered on a one-year contract because the program is funded by central government subsidies given out each fiscal year.

“We have asked the government to revise the (subsidy program) but it’s going to be difficult,” said an official in Fukushima.

The temporary nature of the housing units is also a headache.

So far, piling erosion has been observed at 214 of the structures and termite infestations have been found in 128. Of those, 121 had both.

Normally, the piling that supports the foundation of a house is made of steel or concrete. But because temporary housing units are built to last for approximately two years, the piling is made of wood to shorten construction time and make them easier to disassemble.

The prefecture is planning to push the schedule forward for piling work by the end of March, but has yet to inform the residents of the details, residents say.

In addition, prefectural inspections have found 633 units in need of repairs, such as clogged roof gutters and other issues. Fukushima plans to fix the problems by the end of the month, but the prefecture is plagued by many other requests from residents, keeping them very busy.

“Until I can move to public housing, this is the only place for me to live,” said a woman in her 60s living in a temporary housing unit in Iwaki where a termite infestation was found. “I want it fixed right away.”

This section appears every third Monday and features topics and issues covered by the Fukushima Minpo, the largest newspaper in Fukushima Prefecture. The original article was published on Dec. 11.

  • Richard Solomon

    So called temporary housing is still being used by 19,000+ people in Fukushima. The funding for staff to support them is on a year to year basis, ie temporary jobs for people to help those with what have become longstanding, significant problems. Repairs to the housing are not keeping pace with the needs. Some people remain in these temporary homes because of (false in my opinion) hopes that they will be able to return to their homes in areas that are still, and probably will be for a long time, contaminated with radioactivity.

    So much for the central government’s promise to ‘help them.’ Far more helpful would be a strong and persistent program of support to help them resettle into other communities where they could begin a new life for themselves. To do that, however, would require Abe to stop being in denial about what has happened in Fukushima.

    • Ron Lane

      ” To do that, however, would require Abe to stop being in denial about what has happened in Fukushima”

      More to the point would be the government providing the survivors with an honest appraisal of their chances of ever returning to their homes [as you suggest].

      I personally believe that both the disaster and subsequent recovery efforts have laid bare the utter contempt that the Japanese government has for its citizens.