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Thursday, March 31, 2011
Sendai struggles to regain footing
Tohoku region's largest city faces down aftershocks, homelessness after twin disasters
By ALEX MARTIN and MIZUHO AOKI
SENDAI — Nearly three weeks after the 9.0-magnitude temblor sent shock waves through the city and the massive tsunami devastated a long stretch of the coast, Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region, is slowly trying to get back on its feet.
But frequent aftershocks and the tired expressions on the faces of survivors are a constant reminder that the city of 1 million, known for its rich history and abundant greenery, still has a long way to go to regain its former splendor.
The people staying in the numerous emergency evacuation centers — mostly public schools and other facilities in the city's five wards — have been steadily decreasing as many return to their homes or seek other, better accommodations.
As of Tuesday, roughly 130 people were sheltering at Shichigo Elementary School in tsunami-ravaged Wakabayashi Ward — compared with more than 1,000 who crowded into the school in the immediate aftermath of the twin disasters.
Electricity and water have returned, and food is being distributed twice a day at noon and in the nighttime by Self-Defense Forces personnel. Residents take turns showering at nearby facilities.
But Tadao Sugawara, who has been living at the school with his family since his house was destroyed by the March 11 tsunami, said they need to find a new place to sleep before April 20, when the new school year begins and children return to classrooms.
While Sugawara said those staying at the school were being supplied with enough food and other goods, the stress of homelessness is taking a toll, and minor squabbles among residents are frequent.
"Those who are still staying in shelters at this point are those who have lost their homes and have nowhere else to go," he said.
Tales of lost homes and near-death experiences are rife at the temporary shelters near the tsunami-hit Sendai coastline.
Kazuma Yamamoto, 23, from Shiromaru, Taihaku Ward, was staring at the bulletin board at the city-run Wakabayashi Gymnasium, which houses 350 survivors, looking for updates.
Yamamoto escaped the tsunami by a hair's breadth — he recalled seeing the huge black mass knocking down pine trees as it approached, just 50 meters behind his pickup truck as he raced inland. And while none of his family members was killed, both his home and his workplace, a construction firm, were wiped out.
Yamamoto recalled visiting his firm in Arahama, Wakabayashi Ward, a few days after the disaster and finding a 1.5-ton truck half buried in mud 100 meters from where it had been parked.
Police reports immediately after the tsunami said 200 to 300 bodies had washed up on the shore of Arahama, but many are believed still buried in the rubble.
As of Tuesday, the death toll from the disaster had topped 11,000 and is expected to continue climbing.
"I've lost my house, my job and many friends, and I'm still not sure what to do next," Yamamoto said.
A 50-something woman living in the gymnasium with her family said that while most of the people she shares the hall with are neighbors, she is starving for privacy.
"We've maintained a good relationship with others here. But we've been paying extra attention not to bother other people for more than two weeks, and it's very, very tiring," she said.
The woman, who plans to apply for temporary housing the city is setting up, said she was appalled when she saw what little remained of her home, three days after the quake.
"You've got to see it to believe it — I'm never going to return to that place. It's just too much for us," she said.
But despite the obvious hardships and tragedies many were forced to experience, disaster victims are calm and cooperative, building a friendly relationship with the many workers and volunteers who help run the temporary shelters.
Various restaurants and food chains are making the rounds, supplying food to the shelters, and musicians and comedians are showing up to provide entertainment.
Keiko Sugawara, a mother of two who lost her home and is staying at Wakabayashi Gymnasium with her family, exhibits no outward signs of grief, instead choosing to work with city and prefectural staff as a volunteer.
"I'm just glad my family and I are alive," she said, showing concern for victims in other hard-hit areas, including Ishinomaki and Kesennuma, both in Miyagi Prefecture.
In the Arahama district facing Sendai Bay — now uninhabitable because of the rubble that overwhelms the area — people can be spotted digging out furniture and other goods from what used to be their homes.
A man in his 50s who came with his wife and son to clean up their partially destroyed house said vigilante groups patrol the area at nighttime to protect property from thieves who swoop in to dig up and steal whatever they can scavenge.
The man, a farmer, is concerned about the effects seawater will have on the soil, and said he believes it will take at least five years before the area can even be partially restored.
These worries come on the back of an announcement Tuesday by Miyagi Prefecture's disaster headquarters that the cost of damage to the prefecture has soared to more than ¥1 trillion — well more than its ¥840 billion budget for the fiscal year starting Friday, and a figure that is expected to continue ballooning.
As the damage is gradually assessed, various disaster relief organizations, both city-run and private, as well as volunteer groups, have been rushing to ease the region's pain. A Sendai official said all five wards have set up volunteer centers, and around 200 to 300 people show up every day to be dispatched to various households in need of repair or other help.
In Arahama, international volunteers from the Calvary Chapel in Japan are handing out various goods to those who remain in the area, including underwear and bread, from the back of a truck driven up from Tokyo.
Chizuo Sakurai, a pastor at the church's Kokubunji branch and leader of the volunteer group, said it was his second time handing out goods in Sendai. Sakurai said he and his group, including Jack Bell, a pastor of the Calvary Chapel's branch in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, were heading the next day to Ishinomaki to distribute the rest of the goods.
"As time passes, the needs of the disaster victims gradually change, and we need to adapt to that and get them what they really need," he said. "We plan on being in for the long haul and establishing a continued presence in the area."
Meanwhile, in stark contrast to the devastated coastal area, the infrastructure in central Sendai appears to be steadily improving.
Gasoline is still in short supply — many stations are closed or have long lines of cars waiting for the pumps — but public transportation is being restored, with some subway lines reopening and buses and taxis in operation.
While a third of the shops in the center of the city remain closed and operating hours are curtailed, the amount of goods sold in supermarkets has increased in variety and quantity compared with the days shortly after March 11.
As residents gradually resume their daily lives, many bars and restaurants have also reopened. Office workers in suits and women in high heels can be seen on the streets, like any other large city.
While water and electricity have returned to much of the area, there were still more than 290,000 households without access to city gas as of Tuesday.
A city gas worker in central Aoba Ward said he expects it will take a while before all gas pipes are checked and the flow is resumed.
Atsuko Takayama, a 76-year-old resident of Izumi Ward, said life is gradually returning to normal for her, although the constant aftershocks still remind her of the huge temblor that rocked her home.
"I experienced the 1978 Miyagi earthquake and thought I was prepared, but that was nothing like this one," she said.