March 10, 2013

  • On 3/11/11, a massive wave inundated the northeast coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island. The brunt of the tsunami struck three prefectures: Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima. The region itself is called “Tohoku”. The worst-impacted of the prefectures was Miyagi. Wave heights ranged from 4 meters to 20 meters high, depending on coastline and undersea topography. By Tohoku police estimates, nearly one-half million residents fled their homes and businesses, seeking higher ground or tall, sturdy buildings. Tens of thousands, however, did not flee. Many felt existing tsunami protections would keep them safe. Some delayed evacuating because prior tsunami alerts had resulted in waves of little consequence. Some did not receive the tsunami warning because the earthquake had knocked out the electrical system all along the coastline. Regardless, many of the more than 19,000 killed by the tsunami were because they did not flee while they had the chance. In addition, thousands were severely injured by the wave and had to be hospitalized, over-taxing medical facilities that were unprepared for such a human onslaught. More than 2,000 succumbed to complications of their injuries. More than a million homes were either swept away or severely damaged in the three prefectures. When the black waters receded, some 27 million tons of rubble, sand and mud were left behind. The Tohoku police say 129,225 buildings totally collapsed, with a further 254,204 buildings ‘half collapsed’, and another 691,766 partially damaged. Some structural damage was due to the earthquake, but the majority because of the huge waves.
  • Now, two years later, 315,000 refugees of the tsunami remain in limbo. 60% of those polled by the Press are dissatisfied with reconstruction efforts. Most displeasure is due to temporary housing issues and the limited government aid which has been given them. They feel they have been left to fend for themselves. Many have taken to calling themselves “Kimin” – the forgotten people. 35% plan to try and rebuild where their homes used to be, but 24% say they have to rebuild elsewhere because the land of their old homes is gone. 24% say they will not rebuild along the coast because they fear another monster tsunami. More than 16,000 people remain homeless in Ishinomaki, a city with a pre-3/11/11 population of about 160,000. Some coastal fishing companies have rebuilt, like the Kinoya Company which is located in Ishinomaki City. Kinoya has spent $10 million of their own money (in addition to $20 million from the government) in order to reopen last month. But this is merely one shining example. In Rikuzentakata City, business recovery is burdened with construction delays and lack of funds to rebuild. Nearly the entire community was inundated. Out of a population of 26,000, about 2,000 were killed. The Mayor and the townspeople are severely frustrated. Mayor Futoshi Toba complains, “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. But now, two years later, I have to frankly tell you that reconstruction is still not making good progress.” Currently, refugees get only $400 per month to help with housing costs. Hido Sato, age 83, sleeps on cardboard boxes to insulate her from the cold floor of the 325 square-foot living space she rents. It is all she can afford. According to the Reconstruction Agency, only 45 percent of the fiscal 2012 reconstruction budget, plus funds carried over from fiscal 2011, were spent in the first half of fiscal 2012 in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Restricted funds procurement is blamed for delaying many reconstruction projects, including public housing. Obstructionist politics in the Diet played a role in the delays. Of the 23,000 housing projects promised by the former government, only 56 have been built because of a shortage of building materials and local problems with procuring land on higher ground. As life in temporary housing continues, the residents’ frustration is nearing the boiling point.
  • Over 81,000 jobs were lost due to the tsunami in Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi Prefectures. 47,800 of those had found new jobs by October, 2012. As of October, 2012, more than 33,000 remained unemployed, mostly in Miyagi and Fukushima. In addition, the numbers of those who took an indefinite leave of absence stood at 117,000 in Iwate, and 260,000 each for Fukushima and Miyagi. The major cause of the high unemployment numbers was the tsunami, which swept away numerous businesses along the three-prefecture coast. Approximately 1 million Tohoku jobs were adversely affected by the tsunami. The pre-3/11/11 work-force for the region was about 2.3 million. Of those affected, 638,000 people were forced to miss at least one day of work due to either the earthquake or tsunami, but quickly returned to their jobs. The others either lost their jobs, were forced to resign, or took an extended leave of absence to help family and friends search for lost loved ones and/or find new housing.
  • As of March 1, only about a third of the tsunami debris has been properly disposed of. The rest is either piled in temporary collection sites near the coast or has been left untouched. Most of the untouched is in Fukushima Prefecture, where fear of radiation and mandated “no-go zone” restrictions are holding things back. For Iwate and Miyagi, the primary hold-up problem is finding other prefectures in Japan to take the ash from incineration and rubble for burial. Residents in many other prefectures continue to fear the possibility of radiation from Tohoku’s tsunami debris…including Iwate and Miyagi materials that are not contaminated. It seems the mere thought of possible tsunami debris contamination causes citizens in distant prefectures to oppose giving Tohoku the assistance so desperately needed.
  • Tohoku farmers, ravaged by the tsunami, are struggling to recover. The Tohoku region is largely agrarian, so this is a major issue. Desalination of soil and the removal of sand are on schedule to be 63% complete by this spring. 21,500 hectares of farmland was inundated by the giant wave and some 8,000 hectares remain to be touched. Large debris, like rocks and pieced of decimated buildings, can be removed by machinery. But small materials, especially shards of glass, have to be removed by hand. Most farmers depend on the help of volunteers to get the small stuff. Volunteer Sachie Kajiro, 24, from Chuo Ward, Chiba, said: “Small pieces of glass and debris buried in the farmland are a hazard. Every time we think that we have removed it all, other debris comes to the surface once a heavy machine turns the soil over.” The soils have been severely depleted by the recovery work and the variety of crops that can be planted is limited. Also, crop yields from rice paddies and vegetable fields, the majority of the recovered acreage, have been but a fraction of the pre-3/11/11 levels. Those rice paddies completed in time for the 2012 crop experienced low yields, and 20% of their acreage produced nothing. Kotaro Atami, representative of a local farming corporation, said, “The fertile soil that had been created through work over dozens of years is gone.” The Abe government has earmarked $2.9 billion for farmland restoration and says desalination and debris removal should be done by the end of 2014. However, it will take many years before the soil recovers and Tohoku returns to its former level of agricultural health.
  • The positive impact of volunteers from all over Japan cannot be over-stated. Kinoya Fishing Company President Nagato Kimura said, “Without the support of the volunteers, we would not have thought about restarting our business.” Because of the volunteers, most of the Ishinomaki shoreline rubble is gone and stored in temporary locations awaiting final disposal. Open lots exist where there used to be mountains of debris. Hopefully these tracts will be used to rebuild Ishinomaki’s lost businesses and homes. No one can guess how long that will take. But, if it were not for the volunteers, the possibility would not yet exist.