Tsunami Survivors Wait in a Town Still Paralyzed

By Fackler, Martin | International New York Times, March 14, 2015 | Go to article overview

Tsunami Survivors Wait in a Town Still Paralyzed


Fackler, Martin, International New York Times


Residents of Otsuchi worry they may have to wait longer to rebuild as memories fade and focus turns to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

The spot where the town's center once stood is now a dusty construction site filled with diggers and dump trucks toiling amid huge, man-made mesas of earth and gravel. The work is part of an $850 million project to elevate the land by seven feet and shield it behind a towering 48-foot wall.

Four years after a colossal tsunami swept away most of this remote fishing community on Japan's mountainous northeastern coast, Otsuchi is starting to rebuild.

However, the wait is far from over for thousands of the town's survivors, many of them still living in temporary apartments after being left homeless by the waves. Otsuchi was so severely crippled by the calamity -- 1,284 people died here, including the mayor and many town hall employees, firefighters and police officers -- that the town struggled for years even to put together a recovery plan. Reconstruction began only last year and will not be finished until at least 2019, the new mayor says.

Similar stories could be heard across Japan's tsunami-struck northeast as the nation held prayer ceremonies in recent days to observe the anniversary of the magnitude 9 earthquake and resulting tsunami on March 11, 2011, that left 18,490 people dead or missing. Almost 250,000 people lost their homes in the disaster, and 87,000 still live in cramped, prefabricated housing that was originally meant to last for just two or three years.

It is not clear when, if ever, they will move back. In Fukushima, where the tsunami caused meltdowns that destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, some areas were so contaminated with radiation that they may not be habitable for decades.

In small coastal communities farther north like Otsuchi, far enough away to escape most of the nuclear fallout, many survivors have simply given up and moved elsewhere, accelerating the depopulation of rural areas in this rapidly graying nation. Those who want to stay worry they could face additional waits as memories of the tragedy fade in the rest of Japan, where attention is now turning to events like the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

"Everyone seems to think that life has gone back to normal here, but we are still very much a disaster zone," said Hiromi Kawaguchi, 66, a retired town employee who lives alone in a tiny two-room apartment in refugee housing after losing his wife, mother and 4- year-old grandson, Shoya, to the tsunami.

"Does this mean more delays if the nation has lost its sense of urgency about us?" he said. "Even big construction companies are starting to leave to get a piece of the Olympics."

To help in the rebuilding, the central government in Tokyo pledged 25 trillion yen, or about $206 billion, to pay for reconstruction and radiation cleanup as part of a "concentrated recovery program" that was supposed to end in 2016. …

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