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Japanese Tsunami 2011

The rubble's gone, but as people strive for revival ... ... trouble's far from over

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am

The people are still on their knees, but they are trying to stand again a year after a huge undersea earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated their homes and communities.

In towns and villages in the Tohoku region along the northeastern coast of Japan - such as Ishinomaki, Ofunato and Minamisanriku, which have become synonymous with death and despair - most of the physical reminders of what happened are gone.

The mountains of rubble, crushed cars, overturned fishing boats and scores of unrecognisable debris have largely been taken away by a constant procession of heavy trucks. In some places, buildings that miraculously survived the onslaught are still standing, some at odd angles and with windows and their contents all gone. But otherwise, large areas of these towns are flat and barren.

The challenge now is to rebuild. But questions remain over where and how.

The majority of people who had lost their homes in the natural disasters are living in cramped prefabricated housing units that offer precious little privacy or protection from the harshest winter in the last decade.

With time on their hands, people are considering how they can rebuild their communities. Most want to build well above the high-tide mark of last year's tsunami - which is indicated by a line of new signposts bearing the warning 'Estimated maximum inundation'. All the signs seem a long way inland from the beaches.

So communities are scrambling to find higher ground where they can build again. Tokyo has promised to help cover the costs, although people are becoming impatient about promises that have yet to be fulfilled.

There is also a sense that with many people scattered, jobs gone and younger people looking for opportunities in the big cities, some of these towns may never be rebuilt.

Concrete foundations, which are all that are left of some villages, will remain bare in a decade and beyond.

But people are doing what they can nonetheless.

In the village of Utatsu, a line of temporary cabins containing shops have sprung up in what used to be the car park at the base of the hill. The village was wiped off the map by the tsunami and nothing remains except the outlines of homes and the roads between them.

Five families who used to own shops have restarted their businesses and seem to be doing a good trade with the emergency teams that still pass through. The volunteer groups and the people who lived in the hills above the tsunami zone escaped relatively unscathed.

The hairdresser has three people waiting their turn; while more vegetables are being displayed in the crowded supermarket. A cafe is serving hot coffee as the snow falls on the remains of the rest of the town.

In other villages, convenience stores and used car dealerships have been the first to reopen, both serving a critical immediate need.

There are also countless acts of kindness that help counter the sense of helplessness about the sheer scale of the destruction and the amount of work that still needs to be done.

In Kessenuma, an elderly couple are handing out leeks to passers-by. Their car's boot is full of sacks of leeks that they have grown on their small farm in Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, and they have driven here to give them to strangers.

'I'm no use for clearing things up or building anything, but we wanted to do what we can,' says the elderly man, who is reluctant to accept credit for his charity and does not want his name reported. 'I grow leeks. That is what I can contribute.'

The skeletal structure of the town emergency headquarters in Minamisanriku has a makeshift shrine in memory of the people who died there as they tried to warn others of the impending danger.

The owner of a Tokyo-based firm that makes futons stops by with three of his staff. He lights candles and places flowers on the shrine before offering a silent prayer in their memory. Then they head off to the nearest housing units with unsolicited gifts to keep residents warm through the winter.

Elsewhere, volunteer groups have emerged to assist in the recovery effort. Established organisations, such as Peace Boat Japan, arrived swiftly in Ishinomaki, and continue to do sterling work in removing debris and mud from people's homes to make them habitable again.

Other groups have sprung up from loose alliances of like-minded people. One such group is 'It's Not Just Mud', a non-profit organisation founded by British teacher Jamie El-Banna. He was working in Osaka but resigned after his first volunteer trip to Tohoku last May.

El-Banna currently links volunteers - many of whom have no experience in disaster zones or in reconstruction work - with affected companies and individuals that need their help.

'It's Not Just Mud' volunteers have put in 20,000 man-hours of labour and repaired dozens of properties, El-Banna estimates.

The group's latest project was refitting a home for the elderly and recent hospital patients.

'To us, this is a straightforward, menial task,' El-Banna says. 'But if you ask an old lady who has lost everything she owns, including her home, then what we are doing here is very important work.'

El-Banna says he does not know for certain whether he will be living in Ishinomaki, only that it will be as long as there is a need for volunteers. Looking at the town's devastation, that could be a long time.

'It can be disheartening when you step out the door in the morning and the place looks the same as it was the day before and the day before that, but I keep reminding myself that we are making a difference,' he says. 'It may be small, but to these people, it's a difference.'

Elsewhere along the coastline, the situation is very different.

Large swathes of Fukushima Prefecture look the same today as they did a year ago, although the weeds and undergrowth have encroached significantly.

The 20-kilometre exclusion zone around the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant means these towns and villages are devoid of people and work has yet to begin on clearing the debris.

Tokyo estimates that it will take 40 years to cleanse this vast area of radiation that escaped from the four reactors crippled by the earthquake and tsunami.

However a handful of people refuse to leave their homes in the exclusion zone, while some others continue to tend farms in 'hot spots' that have been identified outside the 20-kilometre limit.

For those who have left everything behind and the few that stay, their lives will never be the same again.

Today, a ceremony will be held at Tokyo's Budokan Hall to mark the first-year anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami disasters.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his cabinet will be in attendance, and messages from the Emperor and Empress will be read out.

It will be a solemn occasion to remember the 15,846 people confirmed dead and the 3,320 who are still listed as missing.

In towns and villages across Tohoku region, similar ceremonies will take place in municipal halls, temples or at the places where houses once stood.

All the participants will be hoping that the next 12 months will bring more happiness after having endured last year's natural calamities.

I'm no use for clearing things up or building anything, but we wanted to do what we can. I grow leeks. That is what I can contribute

An elderly farmer who was giving out leeks to passers-by with his wife in Kessenuma. He declined to be identified.

How a nuclear nightmare unfolded

Mar 11, 2011

A magnitude 9 earthquake strikes off Japan?s northeast coast, causing a massive tsunami that destroys entire towns and villages and kills about 19,000 people.

The power supply and reactor cooling systems at the coastal Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are damaged, causing fuel inside to overheat and melt down.

Mar 12 A hydrogen explosion rips through a building casing reactor number one, but the reactor itself remains intact.

Work crews begin pumping seawater to cool the crippled reactors after freshwater coolant runs out.

The government orders the evacuation of residents within a 20-kilometre radius of the plant.

Mar 14

A second explosion hits the plant, now at a building housing reactor number three. The reactor remains intact.

Mar 15

Third explosion at the plant, this one at a building for reactor number four. The reactor remains intact.

Mar 16

Emperor Akihito makes an emergency television address in a bid to reassure a worried public.

Mar 25

A huge amount of highly radioactive waste water is found inside four buildings with troubled reactors, hindering work to cool the overheating nuclear fuel.

Apr 4

Operations start to dump 11,500 tonnes of radioactive water into the Pacific amid continued emergency cooling operations.

Apr 12

Japan upgrades its assessment of the severity of the nuclear emergency to a maximum seven on an international scale - equal with Chernobyl, although less radiation was released.

Apr 17

Robots enter the reactor buildings for the first time, providing live video feed from inside and taking radiation and temperature readings. The iRobot 510 PackBots record radiation levels under which a human could work for only five hours before reaching the maximum allowed exposure for a year.

May 5

Nuclear plant workers enter a reactor building for the first time since the explosion.

May 11

Emperor Akihito visits evacuees from the radiation zone.

May 23

A team of International Atomic Energy Agency experts arrive to survey the plant and study Japan's plan to contain the accident.

Jun 6

Japan more than doubles its initial estimate of radiation released from the plant in the week after the tsunami.

Jul 9

Prime minister Naoto Kan says the decommissioning of Fukushima will take decades, in the first government announcement of a long-term time frame for the clean-up.

Aug 30

Kan?s government resigns. Finance minister Yoshihiko Noda becomes Japan?s sixth prime minister in five years.

Sep 19

Nuclear disaster minister Goshi Hosono addresses the IAEA general conference and promises to bring the reactors to cold shutdown by year end.

Oct 3

A government commission probing the accident estimates dismantling the Fukushima reactors will cost 1.15 trillion yen (HK$110 billion).

Nov 12

Journalists visit Fukushima for the first time.

Nov 17 and 29

Japan announces ban on sale of rice produced in the Fukushima region after samples show radioactive contamination well above legal limits.

Dec 16

Japan says it has finally tamed the leaking reactors with the declaration they are in a state of cold shutdown.

Dec 21

A road map produced by the government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) says decommissioning reactors at Fukushima could take 40 years.

Dec 27

Tepco asks for an extra US$8.5 billion in aid from a government-backed fund to help it compensate families affected by the crisis.

Feb 22, 2012

Tepco says it is to cover 73,000 square metres of the floor of the Pacific near the battered reactors with cement in a bid to halt the spread of radiation.

Feb 24

Authorities say that some areas surrounding Fukushima will likely remain permanently off-limits.