Traumatic memories and concerns for the future unnerve those displaced by Hiroshima rain disaster

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Shigenobu Ikeda, 74, dreams of returning to his home in Hiroshima.

He believes the property can be fully restored, even though half of the house was damaged in a landslide triggered by the recent torrential rains in western Japan.

Ikeda is one of dozens of survivors seeking government assistance to restore lifelines and rebuild shattered lives. But for most, the prospect of recovery is not yet on the horizon; the region is still grappling with the aftermath of the emergency.

The heavy rains on July 6 caused rivers to burst their banks and triggered landslides across mountainous areas of the prefecture.

Roads connecting the center of Hiroshima with the Yano district, in Aki Ward in the city, reopened last weekend. But services on most West Japan Railway Co. lines that connect Hiroshima with its neighboring cities of Kure and Higashihiroshima have been suspended, and are unlikely to resume before this fall.

“First I want a car — which is stuck in my house, having been carried along by the mudslide — removed, and I want as much as can be saved to be restored,” said Ikeda, who together with his wife was among 87 people who had sought shelter at a nearby elementary school as of Sunday evening.

“I’d like (the government) to help us restore our house, which I worked hard for and feel attached to — I raised my daughter there,” Ikeda added, his eyes full of longing.

Ikeda’s house is located behind a mud-control dam that for years made locals feel secure. But within a period of around 40 minutes, while he was still inside the house, four or five large rocks slid down the hill behind the property.

“They (the officials) tell us it will take time” to clean and restore our neighborhood, he said. “They even came today and said it would take a couple of weeks, but my house is still full of mud, the odor is getting worse and rotten wood will get discolored,” he lamented.

Despite the scorching heat, Ikeda visits his home on a daily basis, accompanied by family and friends, to clean up the property and his belongings — undeterred by a continuing evacuation advisory in his neighborhood.

“I hope they’ll restore the road, water supply and power to our neighborhood. But politicians would help more if one of them or a family member was among the victims,” Ikeda added.

On Sunday evening the police continued the search for missing people in Ikeda’s neighborhood, where five deaths, including those of an elderly couple and a high school student, have been confirmed.

Natives of Ninoshima, an island south of the city center, are concerned that further mudslides could worsen the situation. For residents of the affected area, thinking about the possibility conjures uncomfortable fears that past events will repeat themselves.

Yukiko Yamamoto, 78, finds it hard to think about what to do next. She is worried repeated rainfall could cause damage again in the near future.

“I lost my father when I was six in a similar disaster. That was soon after he came home (from the war),” she said, doing what she could to mask her grief with a smile. As she stood on the second floor of her restored family home, praising volunteers who were removing mud from the property, she recalled the earlier mudslide, in 1945, triggered by weeklong rainfall that swept away all of her belongings. Only the columns that had supported the house were left standing.

The railway system connecting Hiroshima with the mountain city of Akitakata, a nearly two-hour ride by bus from Hiroshima, has been suspended. Authorities say services will resume in about a year.

“But we hear that it may actually take about three years,” said Shin Terao, 40, of Hitoha, a local facility for people with disabilities where some locals sought refuge at the time of the disaster.

“About 70 percent of the population in this area are elderly people; They can’t restore the community by themselves … they can’t run away,” he said. “Each area has its particular problems and even though the damage and lifeline disruptions may not seem significant at a glance, they affect people’s lives in the same way as in regions hit more severely — people can’t live here.”

Authorities still occupied with the emergency response acknowledge that those affected may have to wait for life to get back to normal.

In Hiroshima Prefecture, certificates have been issued allowing the displaced to apply for makeshift or alternative accommodations, or other support. Officials in Hiroshima city’s Aki Ward said they see several dozen people requesting such documents each day.

“Some people are still missing, so we’re prioritizing rescue operations to have firefighters, the police and the Self-Defense Forces continue searching for survivors,” an official with the Hiroshima Municipal Government’s disaster countermeasures squad told The Japan Times Friday. “We’ve been offering assistance to those affected … but the (torrential rains) have impacted such a vast area. We’re still in the process of estimating the scale of the disaster.”

As of Tuesday, seven people were still missing in Hiroshima Prefecture, according to the prefectural government. The prefecture has also confirmed 107 deaths, 22 of which were in the city of Hiroshima and 24 in neighboring Kure. Nearly 12,500 houses had been destroyed or flooded in the wake of the disaster, as of Tuesday afternoon.