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Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Tsunami-hit structures eyed as memorials
Locals split on need to rebuild or remember that fateful day
MINAMISANRIKU, Miyagi Pref. — Standing conspicuously in a barren lowland in what was once the thriving harbor of Minamisanriku are the skeletal remains of the building that once housed the city's disaster prevention office until the day monster tsunami demonstrated the awesome power of the sea.
At the site of the building, where some 40 people lost their lives on March 11, 2011, many people still lay flowers and offer prayers for the victims.
For local residents, however, the building is now a source of anxiety.
"My heart always aches at the site of it. It's preventing us from moving forward toward reconstruction," said a 44-year-old woman who lost her nearby home in the tsunami triggered by the 9.0-magnitude Great East Japan Earthquake.
The municipal government first proposed preserving the building but changed course and decided it should be torn down following requests by survivors of the twin disasters.
The building is one of many tsunami-hit structures and ships washed inland in Miyagi and Iwate that are being removed as the prefectures try to rebuild.
Experts on disaster prevention believe the hulking structures should be preserved as a legacy of the catastrophe. But local governments, taking into consideration the feelings of survivors, are pushing ahead with recovery plans that call for the buildings and ships to be demolished.
In many of the disaster-hit communities, local governments see the current fiscal year as the first real year of reconstruction. They are accelerating work to bulldoze ruined buildings and remove the ships, as their No. 1 priority is to rebuild communities.
These measures include filling in submerged low-lying land and relocating whole residential districts to higher ground.
Eight municipalities in Miyagi and Iwate are considering whether to preserve some damaged structures, but none has drawn up a specific plan.
The upkeep costs are a major concern for local officials. Maintenance of buildings requires anticorrosive treatment and quake-proof reinforcement.
The central government will fully subsidize demolition costs for the time being, but there are no explicit guidelines regarding expenses for preservation.
Local governments are worried that if demolition is delayed by a few years due to controversy over preservation, they may end up shouldering the costs of removing the buildings.
Experts on disaster prevention and city planning set up a study group in Sendai in May to make a list of structures they want to see preserved.
"If (the issue of preservation) is ignored, there will be nothing left to show future generations," one expert said.
But changing reconstruction plans is no easy task for local governments because protracted studies on whether to keep the buildings will delay reconstruction work.
The reconstruction plan in Minamisanriku calls for destroying 36 public buildings.
"We have drawn up plans that include the use of the land vacated by the buildings," a city officials said. "We will begin work as soon as we gain the consent of local residents and choose a demolition company."
The demolition started with a hospital and a fire station in April, and the disaster prevention office, a fixture of the fishing port town's flattened landscape over the past 16 months, is to be knocked down sometime in the next few months.
In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a bus left by the tsunami on the roof of a community hall in the Ogatsu district was taken away in March.
A 47-year-old woman who runs a shop in the neighborhood initially welcomed the removal.
"The mere sight (of the bus) put me off," she said at the time.
However, she has been wondering recently if it was the right decision.
"We can no longer put it back the way it was," she said. "I think we should probably have preserved it to learn the lessons of disaster preparedness for the future."
The municipal government of Kesennuma, another tsunami-wrecked port city in Miyagi Prefecture, has embraced preservation in its plans for reconstruction.
A giant 330-ton trawler stranded some 900 meters inland from the Pacific is expected to be the centerpiece of a disaster memorial park.
The city signed a lease with the ship's owner in June 2011 and has since started planning the park, which will be dedicated to raising awareness of disaster preparedness.
In Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, Yuki Matsumoto, 55, hopes his tsunami-engulfed hotel in the coastal city's Taro district will be kept as a monument.
The six-story hotel was submerged to the fourth floor and nothing but the bare iron frame remains.
Before the March 2011 catastrophe, Matsumoto had been told by his elders about past tsunami disasters that had laid waste to coastal areas of Iwate.
"I had no other way than to picture for myself what I heard. We need something that can show the horrors (of tsunami) clearly," Matsumoto said.
He has proposed preserving the hotel to the municipal government and the two sides are holding talks.
Arata Hirakawa, director of Tohoku University's International Research Institute of Disaster Science, is calling for a review on how best the experiences of calamities can be handed down for posterity.
Local governments "should take time to discuss with disaster survivors about how residents are using lessons from past disasters," said Hirakawa, a member of the study group pushing for preservation of disaster-damaged structures.