Rebuilding Japan's 'ghost towns'

The landscape in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture

More than 100 days have passed since an earthquake and tsunami laid waste to almost 600km of Japan's north-east coastline.

Gone are the helicopters, fire trucks and thousands of emergency workers. Now, the contractors have moved in and this post-apocalyptic landscape is largely populated by one-armed mechanical excavators sifting through the wreckage.

It is estimated that clearing the 25 million tonnes of debris could take up to three years, and in some smaller towns the task has barely begun.

Priority has been given to clearing access roads and restoring power and water supplies to the people who remain in these ghost towns.

The government has built close to 30,000 pre-fabricated houses, each equipped with a TV, refrigerator and other electrical appliances common in Japanese homes.

However, many survivors have been reluctant to leave the evacuation centres.

"The camaraderie of being together with other people in the centres, particularly for the elderly, has helped in the healing process. They don't want to be alone," says Dr Toshiharu Makishima, a co-ordinator of the Japanese Red Cross psycho-social support programme.

Image caption There is a new flow to life in the evacuation centres

Certainly the mood has changed in the centres since the days immediately after the tsunami, when people crowded on the floor of the gymnasium in the Rikuzentakata 1st Junior High School, huddled motionless under blankets in a state of shock.

Now there is a rhythm and flow to life here. Volunteers serve three meals a day and families have erected cardboard partitions to afford a sense of privacy.

Play areas and an internet station have been set up for children. Gone are the desperate messages pinned to notice-boards by relatives of the missing; instead there are messages and drawings of hope and solidarity from around the world.

"Be strong Japan, we are with you," reads one from schoolchildren in Croatia. "We are praying for you," says another from a youth group in Spain.

Constant aftershocks

Nurse Takako Inoue has been caring for the elderly, who have a designated section in the evacuation centre.

"People still have sadness in their hearts, but while they still cry they are now able to laugh as well," she says.

Image caption The elderly have a designated section in the evacuation centre

It is clear that the sense of common purpose and unity has bound people together in their resolve to come through this tragedy.

Of the 150 schoolchildren at Isatomae primary school in Minamisanriku, 64 lost their homes and some lost family members.

The tsunami swept up to the ground floor of the school, which sits high on a hillside at least 25m above sea level. There are few jobs here and some of the children have been left with relatives as their mothers or fathers seek work elsewhere.

"The children look out of the window and see the ocean every day," says Toshiko Kanno, deputy principal at the school.

"They still find it difficult getting used to the constant aftershocks and when it's stormy at sea, they worry that another tsunami is coming."

The teachers have made special efforts to lay on extra-curricular activities such as magic shows and concerts.

"It's most difficult for the few children whose parents are still missing," says Mr Kanno.

"Not finding the body means they can't move on. Some families have now decided to hold funerals."

Long-term challenge

Returning to Otsuchi in Iwate prefecture, it is evident that a lot has been achieved given that this town was wiped off the map.

The tsunami claimed the lives of 1,600 people - 10% of the population. Almost a third of the 140 government officers were killed when waves swept through the building where they were meeting.

Image caption Tsunami debris is being piled high into mountains and then sorted for recycling

A steady stream of trucks continue to shift the debris. A pre-fabricated office now sits in the midst of this wasteland where Tatsuya Sekiya works.

To help people get back on their feet, funds collected in Japan by the Red Cross are being handed out in the form of cash grants through local government prefectures and Tastsuya's role is to manage the process.

"We are a little behind compared to other places," he says.

"Our first priority was to get the shelters ready which took all our resources. But getting the money to people isn't a question of manpower it's about getting the systems up and running."

So far, grants have gone out to 3,000 of the 4,000 applicants in Otsuchi. Tastsuya and his team are committed to building a better future for the town.

Like most coastal communities in the area the local economy in Otsuchi was built around the fishing industry but the tsunami destroyed 700 boats - most of the fishing fleet.

"It's harder for the older generation. My father is over 50 and used to fish for sea urchins. He now has casual work cleaning up the port," he says.

The long-term challenge will be how to rebuild towns like Otsuchi.

Special committees have been set up to look at all aspects of planning and reconstruction. Many people who lost their homes could not afford earthquake and tsunami insurance and will be unable to rebuild themselves. Despite the progress so far, it will be many years before towns such as Otsuchi really come back to life.

Patrick Fuller is the communications manager, Asia Pacific, for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

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