Tsunami-hit towns still barren as rebuilding lags

Friday - 3/8/2013, 3:44am EST

In this Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013 photo, artist Minoru Tasaki, his disabled son Asuka, center, and wife Mieko sit together with Asuka's paintings in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan. Tasaki and Asuka's works were swept away by the tsunami. For now, their work is on hold as they prepare to move from their temporary, rented hillside home to another district. (AP Photo/Junji Kurokawa)

ELAINE KURTENBACH
Associated Press

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan (AP) -- Like tens of thousands of people who lost everything in the tsunami that pulverized Japan's northeastern coast two years ago, 83-year-old Hide Sato is living in one-room temporary housing, and longing for a home of her own.

Chances are she will be waiting at least a few more years. The dozens of temporary housing camps built for tsunami survivors were meant to be used for just two years. Now, officials are saying it could be six to 10 years before all are resettled.

Japan's progress in rebuilding from the mountain of water that thundered over coastal sea walls, sweeping away entire communities and killing nearly 19,000 people, is measured mainly in barren foundations and empty spaces. Clearing of forests on higher ground to make space for relocation of survivors has barely begun.

In Sato's city, Rikuzentakata, nothing permanent has been rebuilt, though in late February it finally broke ground on its first post-disaster public housing project: about half of the homes to be rebuilt will be public housing -- many families can scarcely afford to rebuild after losing everything.

Sato, a spirited octogenarian who constantly laughs and jokes while explaining how she makes the best of things, likens the situation to the devastation after Japan's defeat in World War II. Rikuzentakata's 20,000-some residents ought to just to take matters into their own hands, she said.

"This is our town and so we need to rebuild it using our own efforts. I feel we shouldn't be relying on the government to do it," said Sato, who gets by on a stipend of about $400 a month and sleeps on sturdy cardboard boxes to insulate herself from the cold floor of 30-square-meter (323 square foot) living space.

"We have to do what we are capable of doing, a step at a time," she said.

In dozens of towns, from the tiny fishing enclave of Ryoishi to the big industrial port of Ishinomaki and beyond to the coast of Fukushima, where some areas remain off-limits due to radiation from the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, the tsunami zones remain bleak wastelands.

Scattered along the coast are huge piles of rubble and stacks of smashed scooters and cars. Reconstruction has lagged behind recoveries from earlier disasters, such as the 1995 earthquake that killed more than 6,400 people in western Japan's Kobe-Osaka region, because it is complicated by the imperative to move residents out of areas prone to tsunami that can swell several stories high.

Delays in approvals for cutting forests atop the mountains that will be used for relocation, refusals to allow businesses to rebuild on former farmland devastated by the tsunami, uncertainties over property ownership are among the obstacles in the path of towns that want to rebuild. The Reconstruction Agency in Tokyo, meant to coordinate between Tokyo, the disaster zone and between various government ministries, is criticized as another layer of red tape. The government plans to spend 25 trillion yen ($268 billion) for the entire rebuilding effort. But less than half of the 8 trillion yen ($85.7 billion) allocated so far has been used.

Rikuzentakata's mayor, Futoshi Toba, is fed up with the delays.

Toba, who lost his wife Kumi in the tsunami, is among many who believe reconstruction has been hobbled by Japan's incapacity to shift gears and adapt quickly enough to changes brought on by the tsunami -- just as it is struggling to revive its fast aging, post-industrial economy.

"We have kept going, believing that time will perhaps alleviate our difficulties, that a year from now, two years from now, things will definitely get better and we'll be able to look back and think that was the worst time and things have gotten better," Toba said. "But now, two years later, I have to frankly tell you that reconstruction is still not making good progress."

"In a time of crisis, there needs to be a fundamental understanding that the usual rules sometimes must be suspended or put on hold. But the members of the national government simply seem not to understand that, despite the fact we are very much in an extraordinary emergency situation," he said.

Norio Akasaka, a professor at Tokyo's Gakushuin University who specializes on Tohoku, as northeastern Japan is known, cites Japan's dysfunctional politics -- inept, revolving door prime ministers -- and its unwieldy bureaucracy as the main reasons for delays. Poor coordination between central government agencies and between Tokyo and local governments further complicates matters.

"They are still saying people can't use farmland to rebuild, even though they can't farm there either. We have to revive the region under very severe conditions," Akasaka said. "They throw obstacles in the way as a matter of course," he said. "Each agency is acting within the vertical walls of its own fiefdom."