March 6, 2014 12:00 am JST

A tale of two disasters

MASAFUMI UEMATSU, Nikkei staff writer

A family, who fled their home after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, visits an apartment in newly opened public housing on Feb. 1 in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.

IWAKI, Fukushima -- This city's Toyoma district was devastated by the tsunami of March 11, 2011. But residents who lost their homes finally had something to smile about last week. At a community center meeting, the Furusato Toyoma (Toyoma Roots) reconstruction council, an 80-member group of evacuated residents, learned they would soon be going home.

     Public housing to replace homes swept away in the tsunami of March 11, 2011, will be ready as early as June, starting with 192 units. "The joy and happiness of returning to my hometown ... I'm at a loss for words," said Hiroyuki Watanabe, a 73-year-old retiree.

     In the Toyoma district, more than 400 houses -- about 60% of the total -- were destroyed by the wave. Around 85 locals lost their lives.

     Tokuo Suzuki, head of the district, promised he would do everything in his power to make sure his descendants never had to experience the terrible force of a large tsunami. He set up the Toyoma reconstruction council in August 2011 to create a safe town. Since then, Suzuki has worked day and night for local residents.

Lives in limbo

Suzuki and other council members visited residents living in temporary housing elsewhere, collecting opinions on the community's future. The representatives compiled and submitted a proposal to the city of Iwaki, calling for the development of a new Toyoma district in two elevated locations.

     Temporary stores will over the next year from April be built on higher ground. The Toyoma reconstruction council is now considering other ideas, including the development of a surfing facility that could attract young people to the area.

     About 300 communities in Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures plan to relocate to other areas. Only 10% of them have obtained new land. Former residents of many devastated areas remain undecided on the direction reconstruction should take.

     The city of Natori in Miyagi Prefecture in late February held a meeting for residents of the Yuriage district. About 50 people attended. A city official asked them to decide on the topic for discussion. One attendee was frustrated with the slow progress and lashed out at the official: "Three years have passed. Why are we doing this now?"

     Before the earthquake, 7,100 people lived in Yuriage, a coastal district. The tsunami was as high as 9 meters there, washed away houses and took the lives of about 750 people, or 10% of the population. The city of Natori planned to reconstruct the district in the same location. Residents opposed this, concerned about the safety of the area. They wrote to the Miyagi prefectural government and requested relocation. The prefectural government last year took the unusual step of urging the Natori municipal government to hear out residents on an alternative reconstruction plan.

     But nothing has been decided. Only 40% of Yuriage residents want the new district to be built where the old one once stood, according to a Natori city estimate.

     "Most young people could not wait," said Hajime Kawashima, an 80-year-old retiree who lives in temporary housing. "They have already moved to other places. Residents who live here are mostly elderly people who have nowhere else to go."

In flux

Others also find themselves in a tsunami-inflicted purgatory.

     "I never imagined I would have to move from one temporary facilities to another," sighed Kenichi Shiota, 47, who runs a noodle shop in a temporary shopping area rebuilt in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. Things recently got worse for him. The shopping district will be uprooted in May to make way for the development of higher land.

     The temporary shopping area was built two years ago. Locals believed it was a step forward on the path to full-scale reconstruction. But it wasn't to be. Kesennuma does not seem to know what happens next. Plans show that the only decisions so far made are to construct roads and community centers on elevated land.  

     Under such circumstances, some residents are thinking about calling it quits and moving on.

     "Immediately after the disaster, I did my best," one local resident said. "Nowadays, I don't even know which decisions would point me in the right direction."