Lives in limbo three weeks after Japan’s tsunami

By David Dolan and Jon Herskovitz

SENDAI/TOKYO (Reuters) – The debris left by the tsunami that tore apart Japan’s northeast coast three weeks ago is slowly being cleared but the two train cars washed up to the front of the Sugawara family home are proving far more troublesome.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the tsunami as high as a five-storey building it triggered caused Japan’s biggest humanitarian crisis since it rebuilt from the rubble after World War Two, leaving 350,000 homeless and more than 250 km of coastline in shambles.

Japan has made enormous strides in clearing roads, providing shelter and recovering bodies but it has extended little to rebuild the lives of the hundreds of thousands who lost everything in the disaster and are now looking for ways out of overcrowded evacuee shelters.

Yusuke Sugawara, 78, has taken in his brother’s family whose home in the Sendai suburb of Higashi Matsumura was slammed by the tsunami and now is littered with debris such as ships and train carriages dumped randomly when the wall of water withdrew.

“We read about the temporary houses in the paper, but so far they just seem to be working on them,” he said.

Japan has unrolled a variety of programs, but most offer only partial solutions to life-altering problems and put the burden on the evacuees to seek help at local government offices that may have been washed away by the tsunami or are unreachable because their car is at the bottom of the sea.

An unfolding nuclear crisis has diverted attention from the devastation caused to lives and added to the financial burden for the world’s third largest economy of the incident it estimates has caused $300 billion in damages — likely making it the world’s most costly natural disaster.


The tsunami killed or left missing more than 27,500, leading to daily mass burials in cities along the coast, a once unthinkable idea in a nation where the deceased are almost always cremated and their ashes placed in stone family tombs.

Three weeks after the tsunami, temporary housing has been built for only a handful of families. Petrol and food remain in short supply. Power has yet to be restored to large areas and cigarettes are a scarce commodity in the northeast where many like to puff their way through problems.

“We have long, medium and short-term plans to address the problem but so far we have been focusing on the short-term issues” said Noriyuki Shikata, the government’s deputy cabinet secretary for public relations.

But many of those plans offer only imperfect solutions.

Japan has made available more than 42,000 units of housing it built for civil servants and others to evacuees but the homes are spread out around the country, with only about 1,000 units open in the three prefectures hardest hit by the tsunami.

It is offering amnesty on auto taxes, provided people can prove that their car is gone, which could be impossible since many vehicles were washed out to sea or wrecked beyond recognition when they were swept up in a soup of destruction.

It is offering 100,000 yen ($1,202) in immediate loans for living expenses for people who will have to rebuild everything after escaping with only the clothes on their backs. Even with the money, there is still little to buy in stores and few professionals for hire to help in any repairs.

Regional banks have stepped up with emergency loans of up to 7 million yen ($84,175) to help people rebuild lost homes and up to 30 million yen for businesses.

The humanitarian concerns has been compounded by the nuclear crisis, which has led to 70,000 people living within a 20 km (12.4 miles) ring of the plant leaking radiation to leave their homes. Another 136,000 who live in a 10-km (6-mile) band beyond that have been encouraged to leave or to stay indoors.

The list of challenges for rebuilding after the tsunami and radiation leaks appears daunting.

About half a million people may need new housing. Mass tracks of farmland face soil problems after being saturated with seawater from the tsunami.

The Fukushima farm sector, which once proudly put the prefecture’s name on its rice, fruits and vegetables that went to market, will face the burden of trying to sell its products now that the Fukushima name is synonymous with nuclear disaster.

The tsunami wiped out the fishing industry in Iwate, where about 80 percent of the income comes from aquatic farming off the coast and the radiation leaking into the sea off Fukushima has tainted the reputation of all marine goods from the northeast.


There have been no decisions on what to do with the cities and towns erased by a wall of water. Many of them have fallen in elevation by as much as one meter due to soil erosion and now floods at high tide.

Then there is the question to do with vast fields of irradiated soil near the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant north of Tokyo.

Ken Pepperling, an Oregon-based expert in the treatment of contaminated soils for ADT Environmental Solutions, said Japanese authorities might have to collect and store massive quantities of radioactive soil around the plant as part of a second phase in their response to the crisis.

Victims know they will not be abandoned by the Japanese government and have heard about the hundreds of millions of dollars in overseas aid that will be heading their way.

Yoshihide Yajima, a 61-year-old construction worker who was directing traffic for the steady stream of trucks passing by the port in Higashi Matsumura, said the government was doing the best it can.

“It doesn’t really matter which party is in power, you can’t really prepare for this sort of thing.

($1 = 83.160 Japanese Yen)

(Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki and Chisa Fujioka; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sugita Katyal)

Lives in limbo three weeks after Japan’s tsunami