Monday, December 26, 2011

Tsunami changed everything in country’s northeast

Once-settled land is now vacant, unemployment is rampant, and few businesses are open

An aerial photo taken this week shows a Kyotoku-maru fishing trawler in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. The vessel was swept ashore by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
An aerial photo taken this week shows a Kyotoku-maru fishing trawler in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. The vessel was swept ashore by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Photograph by: Issei Kato, Reuters, Reuters

RIKUZENTAKATA, JAPAN - No place on earth was better prepared for something like the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and monster tsunami that struck northeast Japan in March, and few could match the organization and resources deployed in its aftermath.

Yet even now, months after the disaster and at a time when most of the world, even most of Japan, has moved on to new concerns, it’s almost impossible to overestimate the impact on life here. Everything changed — from the land itself, which has sunk or washed away in many of the prime areas where people used to live and work, to the day-to-day lives of tens of thousands who lost not only their homes and livelihoods, but also the friends, loved ones and networks of connections that make life worth living.

Here, in one of the places closest to the epicentre of the quake, though far enough from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear reactor to be out of range of the fallout, only the suburbs remain — a ring of pleasant, well-spaced homes on the lower reaches of the hills surrounding the coastal plain where the heart of this little city of 23,000 used to beat.

This land, settled for centuries, now looks raw and new and, at least from some angles, deceptively unblemished. Well organized, well equipped work crews have methodically stacked what’s left of the endless sea of rubble left by waves into scores of scattered piles, each sprawling over a few city lots and towering as much as 30 metres against the sky.

Cleanup crews have sorted most of the rubble by type to facilitate recycling. Only splintered wood is found in some piles, smashed concrete in others, or tires salvaged from the twisted remains of thousands of wrecked vehicles — plus the dozen or more orderly “parking lots” with row after row of bent and twisted cars and trucks and buses.

The land itself has been bulldozed flat and clean. It looks like a huge fallow field — except for all the well-paved roads, edged by concrete curbs, that carve the now featureless landscape into what used to be city blocks that were lined with close-ranked homes and bustling shops.
But all this cleanup, necessary as it might be, is really just superficial sanitization that can’t erase the horrid reminders of that day.

Shoma Okamoto stands by one of those now-pointless curbs that border a paved road that meanders through the featureless landscape. He’s in what used to be his front yard, pointing across the street to where the family home and shop of his boyhood friend — now dead — used to be, and then to the empty space next door to where an entire neighbour family, the Itos, died in the disaster.

Okamoto is lucky — his was one of just three families in the 80-family neighbourhood that didn’t lose anyone. He and his adult sister had both left the family home and were living on their own in other cities. And his mother, father and grandmother all escaped, although with little but their lives.

Now he has given up his career in Tokyo — he worked in construction and interior design — to return to his boyhood home and run a newly minted NGO, Save Takata, that tries to help survivors cope.
That the survivors need help is clear, but the way forward isn’t always so obvious.

This is Japan — rich, organized and disciplined — and there’s none of the chaos and squalor that lingers months or years after big natural disasters in many parts of the world. Here, as in cities and towns up and down the coast, almost every displaced citizen has been moved from temporary shelters — some as basic as school gymnasiums pressed into service and some comfortable resort hotels — and into temporary houses which, although tiny and basic, are solid, neat, clean and equipped with standard amenities.

But unemployment is rampant, especially among those with skills ill-suited to the all-encompassing cleanup tasks. People lost not only their homes but also their cars, both generally not insured, and the trains that once took commuters to work in places a little further inland no longer run. Businesses that were wiped out are just starting to reopen, many in premises as crude as a construction trailer. People are in shock at their losses and the psychological difficulty is compounded by boredom and depression.

So Okamoto’s little group, all with deep local roots, has carved out for itself a niche role helping to coordinate the efforts of dozens of non-profit agencies that have come to help, and looking for things it can do — everything from provision of water filters to replacing wedding rings that were lost in the flood — that will help people get their lives back on track.

The next big step lies with the elected councils in affected cities and the national government, which will play a huge role in funding the expected 20-trillion-yen ($266-billion) cost of reconstruction.

They must approve plans, mostly now in the final stages of being hammered out with residents, for new permanent homes.

Megami Kito, one of a small cadre of civil servants seconded to the new reconstruction secretariat, says the objective is to keep former neighbourhoods together, although many community members died in the disaster and others have already left the region and found new homes.

“In most of the municipalities, we’re waiting for the urban planning — where the houses will be built, where the stations will be built, where we’ll situate the industry,” she said.

She said some businesses may be able to return to some areas that were flooded by the tsunami, “but most people are going to want to live on higher ground.

“So to accommodate everybody, we’ll probably have to cut down some mountains. Make it flat, then move everybody to higher ground. And that’s going to be difficult from the point of view of budget.”

In Sendai, a city of a million-plus people on the edge of the disaster area, about 8,100 households were affected (some by landslides in the nearby mountains) and 704 were killed, although the heart of the city was untouched.

Ironically, after the initial shock, the disaster has sparked something of a boom. Industries like tourism, especially international tourism, are down sharply, but retail trade is way up as people from the devastated coastal towns come to Sendai for both day-to-day necessities and materials to rebuild.

In the city of Higashi Matushima, a city of just 43,000 where 70 per cent of the homes were destroyed or damaged, the intention is to ensure that the new community is not only safer, but also more efficient and better in other ways than the one that was lost.

Morio Furuyam, manager of the city’s recovery policy department, said they’re developing an Ecotown strategy in one subdivision where temporary housing has been erected. So far it features mainly innovative conservation measures, but a permanent settlement to be built will include a community-wide smart grid, and options for generating its own electricity and selling the surplus.

Read more:

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Video of a town that was located just north of Kesennuma.

Friday, June 24, 2011

To read and see pictures of the time I spent Japan, click on the archives you are interested in (as in all blogs, you start at the bottom and work your way up):

6/18/06-6/25/06: Tokyo tour, Kyoto, Kesennuma
6/25/06-7/02/06: Kesennuma, Tokyo

Here is an interactive "slider" from CNN showing the devastation in Japan. The second slide and the last slide are of Kesennuma.

This is a panoramic photo from It was made on March 15, and shows the devastating damage done by the huge earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, a fishing town facing the Pacific Ocean in northeastern Japan. (Sankei Shimbun / MSN Japan)

AOL News, 3/27/11: Stunning Video Shows Japan Tsunami Ravage Kesennuma (New video shot right from the port of Kesennuma as the tsunami hit.)

France 24 - Japan: Kesennuma, a town in ruins, 4/1/11 - 16 minute video (in English) taken by a French news crew in Kesennuma - from a few hours after the quake to a few days after

The latest information from Kesennuma is coming from Tim Jones - a JFMF Master Teacher Program participant who went there in June to bring money and see what he could do to help. You can see what he found here.

Here are links to the most recent articles about Kesennuma:

AP, 6/17/2011: Ships tossed ashore by Japan tsunami get rescued, 6/13/2011: Back in the swing: Tsunami kids' jazz band again making joyful noise

Washington Post, 6/11/11: Japan: After the quake and three months after the quake

MSNBC, 6/2/11: World Blog - Looking for signs of rebirth on Japan's battered coast (ongoing blog that will focus on Kesennuma and Minamisanriku).

DailyIndia, 5/28/11: Japan detects high radiation in seabed near Fukushima nuke plant (up north to Kesennuma)

Hawaii Reporter, 5/27/11: Project HOPE medical volunteers embark on humanitarian mission to Japan's northeastern region

Daily Youmiuri Online, 5/27/11: Miyagi areas devising restoration plans

CBS News, 5/17/11: Japan may be world's biggest ship graveyard, 5/3/11: Dire labor situation adding to woes of tsunami survivors

Kuwait Times, 5/1/11: Japan tsunami-hit children receive Kuwait's relief aid

Daily Yomiuri Online, 4/30/2011: Quake-hit railway lines in reconstruction limbo, 4/30/2011: One Big Obstacle To Japan's Recovery? Trash

Bloomberg Businessweek, 4/28/2011: A Grim Future for Japan's Fisheries

AP, 4/23/2011: Careful search for mementos slows Japan rebuilding

AP, 4/21/2011: Students return to school in Japan's disaster zone.

Kyodo News, 4/18/2011: Market reopens in Kesennuma video from Oshima Island, 4/2/11: Riding the tsunami. Video on the only boat to survive the tsunami - captain rode it out to sea.

Seattle Pi, 4/11/11: Debris, challenges pile up in Japan 1 month later (many recent pictures of Kesennuma are here, 4/9/11: Japan's beloved cherry blossoms help dispel some disaster gloom.

The Mainichi Daily News, 4/6/11: Residents on disaster-hit Oshima thank U.S. military for relief work

Daily Yomiuri Online, 4/6/11: Kesennuma retailers strive to rebuild No. 1 dream, 3/31/2011: Crises, economy test Japan's young

The Washington Times, 3/30/2011: Japan's survivors scavenge for hope

The Washington Times, 3/29/2011: While Japan frets over nuclear fears, garbage piles up in cities, 3/27/2011: Isolated Island receives food, water, power with 31st MEU PHIBRON11 visit (article about Oshima Island - the island that sits near Kesennuma's harbor)

Today News/, 3/26/2011: To rebuild or not? Japan's tsunami coast wonders

The Economist, 3/25/2011: Disaster in Japan: Come back in ten years' time

The Mainichi Daily News, 3/25/2011: Students at tsunami-hit school receive graduation certificates stained with mud, saltwater

International Business Times, 3/24/2011: Amidst unspeakable horror, volunteerism flourishes in Japan

NPR, All Things Considered, 3/23/11: On Japan's Coast, Fishing Families Weigh Rebuilding

The Bellingham Herald, 3/23/2011: In Japan, fishermen fear spread of radiation scare

The China Post, 3/23/2011: Baby steps for small business after Japan tsunami

Ninemsn, 3/23/2011: Japan tsunami survivors tough it out at home

Times Leader/AP, 3/23/2011: US Nave supports tsunami-stricken Japan regions

NY Times, 3/23/2011: Diplomas and Uncertainty for Japanese Pupils

KABC LA, 3/22/2011: LA man talks about how wife survived Japan's tsunami

NPR, March 22, 2011: In Kesennuma: Destruction So Complete, It's Hard To Tell You're In Japan

March 17th BBC Video Report from Kesennuma: Japan earthquake: Clearing Kesennuma an 'enormous task'

Video from 3/17/11 in Kesennuma on NTD Television (National Japanese Television)

Slate: The Best-Laid Plans...A Japanese city's Twitter feed shows how difficult it is to prepare for a natural disaster.

USA Today: Daily life tasks can be daunting for survivors

USA Today: Japanese army moves into ghost towns

New York Times: Overwhelmed by Toll, Coastal Town Shifts Focus to Survivors

New York Times: In Remote Towns, Survivors Tell of a Wave’s Power

Bellingham Herald: A 43-hour ordeal awaiting rescue in the tsunami zone

New York Times: As Searchers Inch Along, the Task Ahead Is Huge

Wall Street Journal: Tsunami-Ravaged Areas Run Low on Water, Fuel Food

This is a gallery that Google put together of before and after pictures. Many are of Kesennuma:

Google Gallery

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

This is the latest from Kesennuma. Yuki Oikawa, the Assistant Chief and Supervisor of the Kesennuma City School District is alive. (He is pictured in this photo.)

He reported to a friend in Sendai through a cell phone message that states:

It says (rough translation):

This is Oikawa from Kesennuma. I'm alive, but living quite the survivor lifestyle.
Right now, I am going back and forth between schools and the board of education to help coordinate relief efforts for the survivors here.
Kesennuma and its surrounding areas are devastated by the tsunami and fires of unimaginable proportions.
We are cut off from basic utilities/communications, and shelters lack supplies.
Please coordinate efforts in your area [i.e. Sendai] to help channel food and fuel to the affected areas.
We'll be trying our best (Ganbarimasu)

If you would like to help Kesennuma, there is a group on the ground right now focusing their efforts on Kesennuma. You can donate online to:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Kesennuma before and after:

What Kesennuma looked like during the tsunami and what it looks like now:

Friday, March 11, 2011

I thought my postings to this blog finished when I tagged on the crazy October 2006 "Surprise" snowstorm here in Buffalo.

A 8.9 earthquake has hit Japan - directly impacting Sendai (where we visited a teacher college) and Kesennuma (our lovely host city). I can't stop thinking and worrying about all the school children, teachers, and wonderful people we met while we were there.

Please, please, please pray for them all - and especially the people and places you see in this blog.

Friday, June 30, 2006

If you're new to this blog, you need to click on June 2006 to start reading it. If you don't, you'll only get half of the blog for June. This is where the vast majority of the information on Japan can be found. Scroll down to the very bottom and work your way up. Be SURE to click on all the links. Many of them connect to pages of pictures I took and descriptions I wrote during the trip.

I'm back home. Thursday lasted 30 hours for me (that was just the time I was up and conscious - I actually experienced Thursday, June 29 for 37 hours). Bill Murray (whose work in "Lost in Translation" became very real for me, again popped into my head because of his role in "Groundhog Day").

All the hotel staff, including the chefs, came out to see us leave. I was also able to get some pictures of Tokyo Bay and Tokyo Tower on the way to the airport.

On the flight back, I saw Mount Rainier from 35,000 up. I took I pretty cool picture of it. Due to favorable winds, the flight from Tokyo to Chicago only lasted a half-hour longer than the flight from San Francisco to Tokyo. Still, 11 hours on a plane - sitting in one spot for the majority of the time - is just a tad claustrophobic.

My husband and girls met me at the airport with flowers and tears. We all stood there in a huddle crying together. It was a very long time to be away and, as amazing as the trip was, I would not go back and do it again because of the toll my absence had on my family.

I've been asked to apply for the JFMF Master Teacher Program, but I won't be applying. It would mean being away from my family for six weeks over a summer break. There's no way I'm ever leaving my family for that long again (at least not until the girls are in high school or college). However, the Master Teacher Program is a great opportunity for our school and is something we can apply for now that I've gone through the JFMF Teacher Program.