Tohoku slowly on the mend

The reconstruction of life in the coastal areas of Tohoku devastated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster remains a mixed picture four years on. More evacuees are leaving temporary housing units to rebuild their own homes or to move into public rental housing built for displaced people. Over the past year, evacuation advisories have been lifted on some areas around Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that had been rendered off-limits since the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The restoration of tsunami-shattered infrastructure, such as port facilities and railroad networks, has made rapid progress. Symbolic of this, the Joban Expressway stretching from Saitama to Miyagi prefectures was finally completed March 1 after the last remaining section — whose construction has been delayed due to radiation fallout from the Tepco plant — was finished. The government’s five-year intensive program to rebuild the disaster-ravaged areas — for which it has set aside a total of more than ¥26 trillion — will conclude in fiscal 2015.

None of these developments, however, mean the reconstruction will be over anytime soon. Four years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami left 15,823 people dead and 2,586 others missing in the worst-hit prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, almost 230,000 people remain displaced — down by 38,000 from a year earlier. Nearly half of the evacuees hail from Fukushima, where reconstruction efforts have been complicated by the nuclear disaster. About 56,000 people remain evacuated away from the three prefectures and scattered across the country.

The quake and tsunami destroyed about 400,000 houses and roughly 82,000 people in the three prefectures continue to live in prefabricated temporary housing units. The number has declined by about 30 percent from its peak as people who could afford to build new homes or were able to move into publicly funded rental houses gradually vacated the temporary units. But the construction of housing remain slow due to a manpower shortage and surging material costs in the affected areas, with only about 5,200 of the 29,000 units planned in the three prefectures completed so far.

The roughly 48,000 temporary housing units built for those displaced by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake were vacated within five years. Miyagi and Iwate prefectures estimate that only about 10 percent of such units for evacuees of the 2011 disasters will have been dismantled by the end of March 2016. Fukushima says it has no clear idea about how soon its temporary houses will be vacated. Four years on, the temporary units are starting to require repairs.

The extended life away from normalcy has taken a heavy toll on the evacuees. In the three prefectures combined, at least 3,226 survivors of the 2011 disasters died — including some who were driven by despair to take their own lives — over the past three years after suffering from health problems while in evacuation. In Fukushima, such deaths have outnumbered those killed in the earthquake and tsunami.

The mass evacuations led to the breakdown of many communities and ties remain severed for many of the people fortunate enough to be able to leave the temporary housing facilities. Those of them who cannot afford to rebuild their own homes are moving to newly built public rental houses. Nearly 40 percent of these residents are over the age of 65, and many of them are living alone. After the Kobe quake, hundreds of “solitary deaths” involving survivors who lost connections to their communities and had little or no interactions with their public-housing neighbors became a serious issue. Caring for elderly survivors will remain a huge challenge.

Poverty is a creeping problem for many of the survivors. The number of people receiving livelihood assistance from local governments is reportedly rising in some municipalities devastated by the tsunami after temporarily falling right after the 2011 disasters. Labor demand is tight in the Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures, but jobs tend to be concentrated in the construction sector. Government data show that full-time regular jobs in the three prefectures fell from 2007 to 2012, while the number of people in irregular employment surged by 12-28 percent — much higher than the national average.

The government has categorized the initial five years following the 2011 disasters as a period for intensive reconstruction efforts and set aside a total of ¥26.3 trillion for reconstruction spending — compared with ¥9.2 trillion spent after the 1995 Kobe quake — due to the massive extent of damage that affected broad areas on the Pacific coast of northeastern Japan. But roughly ¥3 trillion of the combined ¥25.1 trillion set aside for fiscal 2011-2013 was left unused — including funds for large numbers of government programs to subsidize local reconstruction efforts.

Many of the tsunami-ravaged municipalities have meanwhile come to rely heavily on national government funding after losing their own sources of revenue due to the crippling of their industries and the population drain that followed the 3/11 disasters. After the five-year period ends, the government reportedly plans to set aside about ¥6 trillion more for the next five years but is also considering getting local governments to share part of the reconstruction expenses. Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures are calling for an extension of the government’s intensive reconstruction program.

Reconstruction cannot be considered complete until the lives of those affected are returned to normal. The government needs to look closely at what can be done to support people in the disaster-ravaged areas and take flexible steps to help them stand on their feet again.