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Living among the Ruins

In this tsunami-obliterated fishing port, rebuilding begins with one word, which Sasaki, a municipal employee, writes — in English — on every invoice and delivery form. Chico Harlan reports.

world Updated: May 14, 2011 23:11 IST
Chico Harlan

He writes “OK” several dozen times each day, and Jinichi Sasaki figures he’ll scribble the word for years before anything about his town feels right again.

In this tsunami-obliterated fishing port, rebuilding begins with one word, which Sasaki, a municipal employee, writes — in English — on every invoice and delivery form. He uses it in lieu of a signature, in part because he likes its simple utility — an antidote for a place that was destroyed. A truckload of rubber boots: OK. A fresh crate of rubbish bags: OK. Forty thousand 500-milliliter bottles of water: OK.

Minamisanriku needs all of these things, and after Sasaki stamps his approval on the paperwork, volunteers stack the just-unloaded items in the sports arena that, eight weeks after the tsunami, keeps this town on life support. This is where Sasaki works, carrying three cellphones to keep pace with calls from donors, reminding them of the town’s ever-changing wish list. Inside the arena, boxes of clothing and canned food reach the rafters. Outside, rubble extends for 3.5 square miles.

A sequence of natural disasters reduced Minamisanriku to a place of profound grief and need. With rebuilding efforts in their infancy, officials such are realising that the town’s shortages — too few supplies, too few jobs, too little safe land for homes — could persist as long as the bad memories.

Sasaki often updates the town’s Web site, listing Minamisanriku’s top priorities. A month ago, the town had no sugar, soy sauce, nail clippers and masking tape. Now it needs vegetables, cooking oil, sandals and toilet paper.

The tsunami damaged about 70% of Minamisanriku’s buildings and left 1,157 people — out of a pre-disaster population of 17,666 — dead or missing. It ripped away the library, the hospital and 24 other public facilities, and left 700,000 tons of debris. It churned the ground with such ferocity that the town was lowered 2 1/2 feet. It knocked out electricity, which wasn’t restored until April 15, and the water supply, which won’t be rebuilt for six months.

It killed 39 town officials, including the 24-year-old who stayed on lower ground, using a loudspeaker to warn of the incoming wave. It left the town so bereft of basic lifelines that emergency workers are encouraging Minamisanriku’s evacuees to reevacuate to other towns, with the possibility of returning in six months when more housing is available.

“Some people are resistant about leaving Minamisanriku,” said Kiyotaka Miura, the town’s crisis management coordinator. “But for those who stay, it won’t be very comfortable.”

The arena, one of the few buildings on higher ground, serves as a staging area for Minamisanriku’s recovery efforts. Here, the post office operates out of a Toyota van, and members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces distribute gasoline from two green drums.

Six hundred evacuees live in the arena, and on one announcement board near the entrance, 18 pieces of paper, tacked together, list the identifying characteristics of hundreds of bodies pulled from the rubble.

As thousands of evacuees leave for farther-flung areas — Minamisanriku has 41 shelters; municipal officials want to reduce that number to five — the low-lying part of town feels more and more like a muddy convention site for laborers, engineers and volunteers.

A national reconstruction council based in Tokyo has called for a decentralized recovery strategy that gives towns wide latitude to pursue their own ideas. So Minamisanriku officials have drafted the first round of plans, which have not been formally released. Its computer-generated images show a town that again feels like a town. A man-made hill along the coastline, blocking future waves. A park area for children. A flourishing fish market.

Officials acknowledge that the rebuilding efforts will encounter obstacles — particularly as residents weigh whether to live within view of the ocean or stay clear of its danger. Some will want to live on mountains that cloak the former city; problem is, the local government owns only one hilltop and will need to negotiate with private owners to claim the remaining areas.

Others, despite the recent devastation, will want to live on lower ground, as their ancestors did; problem is, many elderly would have a hard time evacuating in an emergency, even with the best-formed plans. “To coordinate these different opinions,” said Sato, the mayor, “will be very difficult.”

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