Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tohoku and Fukushima Visit and what I saw

Last week, I drove up to the Northern Japan (Tohoku) and Fukushima to see some of the disaster areas hit by 3.11 great earthquakes and tsunami.
Driving 8 hours straight for two days was nothing but exhausting, but that was a well worth experience overall.
 Closer you get to Tohoku on the highway, you see more road constructions both day; you get a sense that rehabilitation is under way. Although Sendai and surrounding cities seem fine and I don't feel that much difference from rest of the country. Once you get on the coastal road (number 45), you see a totally different world.

These pictures are taken at Minamisanriku-Cho, one of the heavily damaged towns. Only half of people survived and 95% of the town was destroyed (according to Wikipedia). 

A unique characteristic of Sanriku Coast is that coastline is very hilly. When I drive up a hill and pass a certain line, houses are fine and damages are minimal. But once I get to a coast level, there you see badly destroyed scenes. Seawalls are all gone, rail roads are all wiped out, so are all the houses. And what shocking is that this scenery continues all way up to a few hundred kilometers.

The scale of affected areas is daunting. However, I have seen so many construction trucks on the coastal road and got a feeling that they are in active rehabilitation. It seems like a clean-up work is near complete and now it is ready to get into a future city planning and re-construction. Although not many people do not seem to have a good understanding of what the future city-planning would be for these affected towns.

One visible issue is dealing with massive left garbage. there are piles of stuff all over the places.
This would be a very difficult and expensive problem to clear all garbages.

Second day I went to Fukushima. There I have seen similar scenery but have also witnessed different problems from day one. Unlike Sanriku Coast, the coast line in Fukushima is flat, so the damage from tsunami is widely spread. And the nuclear disaster makes problems in Fukushima whole a lot more complicated. In Fukushima, disaster areas could be categorized following: earthquake hit, earthquake followed by tsunami, exclusion zone, used to be exclusion zone but recently re-opened. Each type has its own problems and dealing with all of these problems makes city people harder to work on. Fukushima had to work on nuclear decontamination prior to any rehabilitation, so they are behind Iwate areas (Northern Japan where I visited the first day) in regard to cleaning up garbage and re-constructing the infrastructure. Also I have witnessed a significant shortage of volunteer work in near exclusion zone.
Minami-Souma City is about 25 kilometres north of Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant and it used to be in an exclusion zone. Although this city is no longer in the exclusion zone, I saw no one on the street. And since institutions like Fukushima University does not let students to volunteer in this city due to a risk in radioactive contamination, volunteer shortage is a serious concern.

City governments are not capable of handling all. A resident I talked to told me that a contact agency for residents is a city office, and Reconstruction Agency, a national government's office to coordinate reconstruction activities, is not reachable. So a small city office, like Minamisoma, is getting over-capacity. I did not feel that this place is in an active rehabilitation phase like I saw in Iwate.

I was fortunate to meet people from Fukushima University Disaster Volunteer Center, where 2012 Sakura Days Japan Fair sent $1146.60 to help them with their volunteer work.

I was happy to meet people who are actively working with local groups for the relief. They emphasized, though, that continuing to work on relief in upcoming years is important and getting people for volunteering is becoming harder.

I am glad that I made this trip. I am not too sure how and what's the best way to get involved with the relief personally, but there are clearly still a lot of work to be done, and I would like to be a part of them, somehow.

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