Tsunami-hit towns still barren as rebuilding lags

March 7, 2013 - 10:29 PM
Japan Slow Recovery

In this Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 photo, flowers and a bottle of water are placed to pay tribune to the victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami near a fishing boat washed ashore in Kesennuma, Japan. Japan's progress so far in rebuilding from the tsunami that thundered over coastal sea walls, sweeping entire communities away and killing more than 19,000 people, is mainly measured in barren foundations and empty spaces. Clearing of forests on higher ground due to be leveled to make space for relocating survivors has barely begun. (AP Photo/Junji Kurokawa)

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan (AP) — Like tens of thousands of people who lost everything in the tsunami that pulverized Japan's northeastern coast two years ago, 83-year-old Hide Sato is living in one-room temporary housing, and longing for a home of her own.

Chances are she will be waiting at least a few more years. The dozens of temporary housing camps built for tsunami survivors were meant to be used for just two years. Now, officials are saying it could be six to 10 years before all are resettled.

Japan's progress in rebuilding from the mountain of water that thundered over coastal sea walls, sweeping away entire communities and killing nearly 19,000 people, is measured mainly in barren foundations and empty spaces. Clearing of forests on higher ground to make space for relocation of survivors has barely begun.

In Sato's city, Rikuzentakata, nothing permanent has been rebuilt, though in late February it finally broke ground on its first post-disaster public housing project: about half of the homes to be rebuilt will be public housing — many families can scarcely afford to rebuild after losing everything.

Sato, a spirited octogenarian who constantly laughs and jokes while explaining how she makes the best of things, likens the situation to the devastation after Japan's defeat in World War II. Rikuzentakata's 20,000-some residents ought to just to take matters into their own hands, she said.

"This is our town and so we need to rebuild it using our own efforts. I feel we shouldn't be relying on the government to do it," said Sato, who gets by on a stipend of about $400 a month and sleeps on sturdy cardboard boxes to insulate herself from the cold floor of 30-square-meter (323 square foot) living space.

"We have to do what we are capable of doing, a step at a time," she said.

In dozens of towns, from the tiny fishing enclave of Ryoishi to the big industrial port of Ishinomaki and beyond to the coast of Fukushima, where some areas remain off-limits due to radiation from the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, the tsunami zones remain bleak wastelands.

Scattered along the coast are huge piles of rubble and stacks of smashed scooters and cars. Reconstruction has lagged behind recoveries from earlier disasters, such as the 1995 earthquake that killed more than 6,400 people in western Japan's Kobe-Osaka region, because it is complicated by the imperative to move residents out of areas prone to tsunami that can swell several stories high.

Delays in approvals for cutting forests atop the mountains that will be used for relocation, refusals to allow businesses to rebuild on former farmland devastated by the tsunami, uncertainties over property ownership are among the obstacles in the path of towns that want to rebuild. The Reconstruction Agency in Tokyo, meant to coordinate between Tokyo, the disaster zone and between various government ministries, is criticized as another layer of red tape. The government plans to spend 25 trillion yen ($268 billion) for the entire rebuilding effort. But less than half of the 8 trillion yen ($85.7 billion) allocated so far has been used.

Rikuzentakata's mayor, Futoshi Toba, is fed up with the delays.

Toba, who lost his wife Kumi in the tsunami, is among many who believe reconstruction has been hobbled by Japan's incapacity to shift gears and adapt quickly enough to changes brought on by the tsunami — just as it is struggling to revive its fast aging, post-industrial economy.

"We have kept going, believing that time will perhaps alleviate our difficulties, that a year from now, two years from now, things will definitely get better and we'll be able to look back and think that was the worst time and things have gotten better," Toba said. "But now, two years later, I have to frankly tell you that reconstruction is still not making good progress."

"In a time of crisis, there needs to be a fundamental understanding that the usual rules sometimes must be suspended or put on hold. But the members of the national government simply seem not to understand that, despite the fact we are very much in an extraordinary emergency situation," he said.

Norio Akasaka, a professor at Tokyo's Gakushuin University who specializes on Tohoku, as northeastern Japan is known, cites Japan's dysfunctional politics — inept, revolving door prime ministers — and its unwieldy bureaucracy as the main reasons for delays. Poor coordination between central government agencies and between Tokyo and local governments further complicates matters.

"They are still saying people can't use farmland to rebuild, even though they can't farm there either. We have to revive the region under very severe conditions," Akasaka said. "They throw obstacles in the way as a matter of course," he said. "Each agency is acting within the vertical walls of its own fiefdom."

The remoteness of many areas stripped bare by the tsunami and a lack of manpower has also hindered rebuilding. Rikuzentakata's post-tsunami landscapes of a year ago and now, a year later, differ little.

About three-quarters of Rikuzentakata's 8,000-some homes were destroyed by the 13-meter (43-foot) tsunami that swept up to 4 kilometers (two and a half miles) up its wedge-shaped river valley.

Most debris was hauled away long ago. The wind whips through derelict skeletons of the few concrete buildings yet to be demolished. Utility poles stud roadsides and empty lots are littered with mundane odds and ends — kitchen strainers, skillets, laundry hangers, a rusted clock.

Like many cities in rural Japan, Rikuzentakata was in trouble even before the disaster. It has long lacked enough labor for its traditional industries, like fishing and farming — and has few jobs that can satisfy the aspirations of younger residents who are leaving to seek work in the cities.

The disaster accelerated that process, and Toba chafes at delays he blames on a lack of urgency among bureaucrats and politicians in Tokyo.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited Rikuzentakata in early February, has promised faster action on rebuilding. His Liberal Democratic Party regained power in December, trouncing the Democratic Party of Japan, which was widely condemned for its handling of the tsunami and resulting meltdowns of reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant to the south.

"The elderly survivors say time is running out," Abe said in a March 1 policy speech to parliament.

Local economies are barely beginning to recover: first came the vending machines — near ubiquitous in Japan. Now, various small frontier-style enterprises such as restaurants, shops selling seeds and makeshift shopping malls are popping up in the tsunami zones.

But these are only the barest essentials for Rikuzentakata, whose main industries before the disaster were oyster farming, fish processing and tourism.

Few businesses have rebuilt in the worst hit areas of the disaster zone, and uncertainty over prospects for reconstruction is deterring most from outside from even considering investments there.

"Most companies don't know what to do here, what to sell," said Toba. "We need companies to do business and create jobs."

One of the few projects to start up here so far, Granpa Farms, is an agrotechnology company from Kanagawa, near Tokyo, that has built eight dome-shaped high-tech greenhouses for hydroponic farming of lettuce and other greens.

"The worst problem in the disaster zone is that there are no jobs, said Takaaki Abe, the company's founder. "To save these towns we must create jobs."

The company only employs a couple dozen people, but Abe plans to expand and is also setting up more dome farms further south, in areas near the wrecked nuclear plant.

The domes in Rikuzen Takata sit next to several tsunami-smashed buildings that have yet to be torn down.

"Two years on, you can see we are still gathering debris," said Abe. "People here are asking why it is taking so long."

Fated to a clean slate, Rikuzentakata and its neighbors have blueprints for remaking themselves into modern cities powered by clean energy and sustained by industries better suited for their fast aging populations, such as rehabilitation facilities.

The plan calls for a mega-solar project in pastureland above the nearby city of Ofunato, where the soil's radiation readings now exceed revised exposure standards, making it unsuitable for livestock farming. It also calls for using local timber to build new energy-efficient homes.

"If we can do it, we must do it," said Toshinori Inada, a local official from central Japan who was just finishing a year long assignment in Rikuzentakata, where so many local officials died that those from other regions are needed to handle the huge workload of recovery and reconstruction.

Before the solar panels can go up, the land must be rezoned from agricultural to industrial use.

"There is nothing to show you yet as none of this has been done," said Inada. "There are problems. So far, no companies have bid for this project, so we are hoping to build a consortium. Then we might be able to do it."

This is Rikuzentakata's chance to be reborn, said Mayor Toba. "If 10 years from now we only have 2,000 people living here, that won't do. We have to rebuild the town properly."

"It's like a car wreck. If the car is totalled, then you can't repair it. You have to get a new car," Toba said.

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