Ten years ago, legions of reporters, photographers and videographers from across the country and around the world flocked to northeastern Japan to cover the aftermath of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
But it was local journalists — whose families, careers and livelihoods remain deeply rooted in the region — who were the first to arrive at the scene of the disaster and the last to leave.
While progress has been made in the years since that fateful day, the road to recovery is far from over in the eyes of those who have been there every step of the way.
On Friday, March 11, Shinji Tsumuraya had the morning off.
At the time, the 53-year-old was a news editor for Fukushima Minpo, one of the largest daily newspapers in Fukushima Prefecture. There was a meeting that afternoon on the next month’s print operations, so he relaxed for a few hours before driving to the office, which was located just across the street from Fukushima Station.
Just moments after the meeting ended, the entire building began to shake.
At 2:46 pm, a magnitude 9 earthquake was detected 70 kilometers off the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region. A short time later, a wall of water slammed the coast, destroying homes, office buildings and evacuation sites, sweeping their inhabitants into the sea.
There was little time to react.
Tsumuraya and his colleagues sprang into action. Reporters and photographers — many of whom were in the middle of ongoing assignments — were called in and dispatched to various locations.
Tadao Furukawa, 52, had just finished taking photos at a middle school graduation ceremony in Onahama, a port town in Iwaki on the southern end of the coast of Fukushima. He was heading back to the main office and his car was stopped at an intersection when the tremors began.
He briefly surveyed the area surrounding Fukushima Station, where trains were halted, cars had been abandoned and people were clamoring, racing this way and that as they tried to contact family, figure out what to do next or simply gather their wits.
As soon as Furukawa arrived at the office, he was sent straight back into the field.
Furukawa and two reporters drove to a nursing home in Minamisoma City, a town located on the northern coast of the prefecture that had, at the time, more than 70,000 residents.
By the time they arrived, parts of the city were already submerged. In Minamisoma, the tsunami took the lives of more than 400 residents, and 1,100 were missing afterward.
While the offices of Fukushima Minpo suffered minor damage during the earthquake, flooding caused by broken underground pipes at the printing factory, ink and paper shortages as well as damaged highways had editors worried the newspaper couldn’t be printed and distributed, even if they managed to lay out all the pages in time.
Downed power lines and overwhelmed cellular networks also made communication nearly impossible between those at the office and those in the field — not to mention for the thousands of residents trying to find out if their loved ones were safe — and public transportation was out of the question.
And yet, the news didn’t stop.
Despite everything, Fukushima Minpo managed to publish a 16-page version of what is normally a 32-page newspaper, delivering vital information immediately after the prefecture was cast into darkness.
“It was about the residents of our own prefecture,” Tsumuraya said. “It was news produced by and for disaster victims.”
Tsumuraya and Furukawa used what time they could spare — between editing the paper and taking photographs of the disaster zone — to trade short messages with their family members, all of whom survived with no major injuries.
Tsumuraya returned at around 3 a.m. the next day to an apartment in disarray — “everything had fallen off the shelves,” he recalled — so the weary editor grabbed a futon and returned to the office to steal a few hours of sleep.
That was the first of many days spent covering the aftermath of the earthquake.
The damage was extensive and severe. There were nearly 16,000 deaths, more than 6,000 injured and 2,500 missing across 20 prefectures, according to the latest report from the National Police Agency. More than 120,000 buildings were completely destroyed and far more were heavily damaged.
In Fukushima Prefecture, the devastation from the earthquake was compounded by the triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
“Pardon my phrasing but, if it were just the tsunami, there would have been ways to recover from the disaster,” Furukawa said. “But the nuclear disaster was piled on top of that, and that made it impossible to know what would happen next.”
The tsunami generated a 14-meter-high wave that knocked out the power plant’s backup generators and disabled the facility’s cooling mechanisms, thereby triggering three hydrogen explosions that would release nuclear radiation into the atmosphere.
By the time the radiation leak was sealed, the damage was done.
Some 154,000 residents living within 20 kilometers of the power plant were evacuated, many of whom continue to live in off-site temporary housing or may never return. Not only that, fear of radiation poisoning threatens the survival of businesses in Fukushima, a region known for its fish and fresh produce.
Meanwhile, efforts to decommission the nuclear power plant are moving forward at a snail’s pace.
How and where to dispose of nuclear debris and spent fuel — and the water used to stabilize them — are some of the major issues that continue to plague the facility.
“Things aren’t exactly proceeding smoothly,” Tsumuraya said.
The evacuation order has been lifted in some areas, but the central government has not put forward a timeline for when the rest of the evacuation zone will be lifted, nor has it revoked the state of emergency it declared 10 years ago at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
“It’s for these reasons the region couldn’t begin to heal even after the earthquake ended,” Tsumuraya said. “I speak on behalf of Fukushima Minpo when I say the recovery of Fukushima Prefecture is still underway.”
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