Recovery?: Reflecting on 1000 days.

Okirai Coast

As I’ve been working on relief projects in various tsunami-hit communities across the affected areas in Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi for well over two years already, the term of “復興 (‘fukkou’ = Recovery/Reconstruction)” is one that I’ve heard multiple times every single day.

I visited a small “Recovery” shop near my work site today and picked up a half-dozen items for just shy of 300 yen. The shop is run out of a prefab container set up on land that must have been where the shopkeeper’s house once was. Parts of the concrete foundation are still visible, as well as the buried outlines of what once must have been their beautifully kept traditional garden. The flooring inside the shop was bare plywood and the walls consisted of uncovered drywall, screwed into place, but the goods of the shop were carefully selected and lovingly arranged across various tables and cabinets.

Admittedly the shop sells “Second Hand” Goods, but as I went through the goods on display, I was struck to see prices of “20yen($0.21)” here and “60yen($0.63)” there. The town that I am currently working out of had been very badly hit by the tsunami, and the area of this shop sees very little traffic outside of the debris-carrying dump trucks that rumble across a nearby access road. Outside of my visit today, and family and friends who might go out of their way to step in and say hi, I can’t imagine there being very many customers. Without regular customers, and without prices to allow a living wage for the shopkeeper, it would be hard to argue that this is a sustainable business model.

I wish this sort of a situation was an exception, but over the last two years, a lot of the small shops that have gone out of their way to reopen in devastated areas are still struggling, and that struggle seems to be growing more difficult as time goes by. While communities across Tohoku are “supposed” to have entered the “Rehab and Reconstruction*1” phase according to any of the media reports out of Tokyo, a lot of the communities I’ve worked with are stuck in a limbo-state where ‘Reconstruction’ is ‘planned’ but too far out-of-reach.

*1: For reference, the stages of Disaster Recovery are: 1) Preparedness and Mitigation 2) Response 3) Relief 4) Rehab and Reconstruction 5) Recovery.

Just over 1000 days have passed since 3.11, and there are 270,000 people still living out of Temporary Housing. Although the government originally stated a limit of two years for Temporary Housing residency, we’ve now passed that mark and are optimistically looking at AT LEAST another 3 years for large numbers to be able to move out. The next major phase of ‘Reconstruction’ is for communities to be rebuilt on 高台 (‘Takadai’=Raised Land.) One complication of Japan being a volcanic island originally, is that most of the country is mountainous with most arable land limited along river-ways and the coast. As the 3.11 tsunami affected nearly 400km of coastline, and with post-disaster restrictions prohibiting rebuilding in most coastal areas, the lack of arable areas further inland has created a massive logistical challenge for rebuilding devastated communities.

Some of the greatest challenges that people need to face are metaphorically described as the need to “move mountains.” In order to rebuild in Tohoku, construction companies have recently begun the task of literally ‘moving mountains.’ The task of creating “raised land” involves a 3-year process of bulldozing and shaving down the top half of nearby mountains, and resettling the displaced earth into neighboring valleys.

Only after the mountains are razed and the valleys are filled in, can reconstruction of new towns finally begin. This “Limbo state” over the next few years before reconstruction is going to create a lot of friction as the reality of long-term residency in Temporary Housing sinks in further, combined with the stresses of realizing that considerable numbers of tsunami survivors will not be able to complete the transition into “Recovery Housing” on the raised land. While the bill for Temporary Housing for the first two years (then three years, and currently extended to four years) is being covered by various levels of government (depending on the size and resources of the community, as well as the level of devastation), the mortgages required to move into Recovery Housing fall into the responsibility of the people moving in.

Only people who made the transition from Refugee Shelter to Temporary Housing for their original community are eligible for Recovery Housing. This shuts out the people who fled to far off prefectures to move-in with distant relatives after 3.11, and this also shuts out the people who have already left their original communities to look for work. Beyond that, although the costs and mortgage rates are very reasonable compared to the general Japanese housing market – we’re not looking at the same demographics as the ‘general’ housing market. In many of the most-devastated communities, the local economy still hasn’t picked up, and chronic unemployment is still a major problem.

Although the fishing and construction industries are showing signs of recovery, there has been an exodus of younger people in most other fields. Compound this with the large numbers of elderly or people pushed into early-retirement after losing their businesses, and we are looking at a worrisome number of people who won’t be able to complete the transition into Recovery Housing. I’m still mixed on whether this is ‘good trend’ or not, but one trend that I’ve been encountering increasing often is that of “illegal repairs” or “illegal rebuilding.”

One of the reasons why communities have to wait for the Raised Land is because the government has banned any rebuilding on sunken areas*2 that face a considerable risk of tsunami inundation, and has even banned both rebuilding and repairs in regions that face high-risk of tsunami inundation. *2: The massive forces of the 3.11 Earthquake has resulted in land sinkage from 30cm up-to-2-meters along much of the coastal regions of Tohoku.

I’ve met several locals who have had their houses gutted in ‘banned areas,’ and even took part in gutting many of those houses as well. The reason for ‘gutting’ is to knock down tsunami-soaked walls to remove bacteria-infected insulation and to cut up the flooring to shovel out rutting tsunami mud. If gutting and drying-out is not performed within 3-5 months of the tsunami, even houses that structurally survived the tsunami face a high risk of rotted foundations.

Once the foundation woodwork rots, it becomes exponentially more difficult to repair a damaged house. Of those locals who had their houses gutted in banned areas, most of them were patiently awaiting the government to put up ‘tsunami barriers’ along the coast and repair local dams. Now that the plan has changed to rebuilding on ‘raised land’ with another delay of 3 years, the increasingly frustrated group of people who had been waiting for an official okay to repair their houses… has given up on waiting for approval. While they face a very real possibility that they may be required by law at some point to tear down their ‘illegally repaired’ houses, an increasingly frustrated minority has begun repairing their houses.

At the 1000-day mark, I’m proud of the people I’ve met who have had the courage and audacity to ‘illegally repair’ their houses, despite the very real risks, while I’m also worried to realize that the current Limbo State will very likely continue into the 2000-day mark, especially with the mountain razing looking to take until 2016. I wrote this entry looking at the 1000-day mark and “Recovery?” but doubtfully hope that I’ll be able to write the 2000-day mark entry without the question mark.

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