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Friday, March 25, 2011

Blogging From Japan

Earthquake update 13

by Jamie Rosenberg on Friday, March 25, 2011 at 6:43am

Things are slowly beginning to return to normal in the Tohoku Region. In the areas that were not directly hit by the tsunami, the biggest impediment is gasoline. A few hours after the tsunami came ashore in Shichigahama, it caused a major explosion at the oil refinery there, which was the most prolific in northeast Japan. In response, oil refineries in western and northern Japan, which normally operate at 80% capacity, have begun running at 95%, but it’s still far from enough.

The lack of gasoline is responsible for extremely long lines at gas stations and 10 or 20 liter limits. Many localities now have systems where owners leave their car in a line overnight and receive a ticket in the morning, indicating that they can fill up that day. Both the tickets and the gasoline run out fast, with attendants holding signs at the end of the line of cars, which say, “We are terribly sorry, but we are finished for today.” The signs come out at around 10:30 am.

Far worse, though, is that the lack of gas has nearly blockaded the area. Trucks won’t go up for fear of being unable to return, and trucks from the area don’t have the fuel to leave and come back. Store shelves in supermarkets are often empty, and other stores won’t open. For the first few days following the earthquake and tsunami, there were more stores open, but they have closed as they have run out of stock.
Still, the food shortage is not as bad as it once was. When a major grocery store gets a shipment, the news is spread quickly by word-of-mouth, and hours-long lines form out front, sometimes stretching out for blocks, sometimes cultivated by employees to wrap around one or more buildings. Yesterday, I even saw a small bread truck making deliveries (and so did the 40 people who immediately queued up in front of one of its stops, a small convenience store).

Partially because of loss of housing and work, and partially because of the fear of radiation (be it on the part of themselves or their families), many foreigners have left Japan. Some have left only until the nuclear reactors in Fukushima have been repaired, some until their schools or workplaces reopen. Many are gone for good. For members of some teacher dispatch companies, the earthquake fell almost at their end of their contracts, when they were getting ready to go home, anyway. For many others, their lives in Japan were totally interrupted. The upshot is that there are many apartments in the Tohoku Region and in other parts of Japan which have been hastily vacated by their foreign occupants. I visited one such apartment, whose owner returned to his native England on a just a few days’ notice. The apartment still looked lived-in, with an unmade bed, a closet full of clothes, and a partially-stocked refrigerator. The occupant had given a friend of mine the key, so that he could mail one sealed box of clothing and books.


Scenes from Japan


Jamie Rosenberg, 27,  was on his way to Japan when the March 11 earthquake hit. He’s a Baltimore native, who spent three years working for the Shichigahama government, located in Miyagi Prefecture in northeast Japan. The town reports 41 deaths with 100 people missing out of 22,000 residents. Jamie has also developed close ties with Shichigahama’s sister city, Plymouth, Mass., is now volunteering with relief efforts and providing regular updates to Here & Now.

Shichigahama Works To Recover From Tsunami

By Jamie Rosenberg

The lack of running water notwithstanding, about two-thirds of the town seems almost as if nothing happened. Though the earthquake was hundreds of times larger than the houses were meant to withstand, almost all of the newly built ones managed to stay standing.

The other third of the town is disastrous. Whereas other tsunamis that had reached Shichigahama were softened because they lost energy bending around the Ishinomaki Peninsula, this tsunami hit directly. The areas by the beaches that were on the Pacific Ocean are all destroyed, and many of them are entirely unrecognizable. The hardest hit areas have absolutely nothing standing in them, though there were many houses and businesses there only a week ago. The beach has been pushed up onto the land, and even the solid concrete wave-breakers are scattered. Along the water, there are steel shipping containers half submerged, and I’m not even certain where they came from. I fear that they’re from ships anchored off the coast, waiting to make deliveries to the Port of Sendai.

The concrete plaza, parking lot, and staircase meant to protect against tsunamis which ran along the Shobutahama Beach have all been smashed. In several areas, the ocean has come far inland, and waves calmly roll in and out between collapsed homes and upturned hunks of street. A friend of mine, a Rotarian, and a friend of Plymouth’s, Hirakatsu Suzuki, owned a gas station in the Shobutahama area. Only the pillars are still standing, and the thick mud around the gas station is shiny and smells of oil. Further past that, the wreckage hadn’t been cleared at all. Search teams were still sifting through rubble, looking for human remains. All this about a half kilometer inland, and the waves reached at least 10 meters at this point. I have never swam out to sea far enough for it to be as deep as the sea was when it came onto land in this area.

The Yoshidahama area and port were destroyed, and another friend, Shigeru Suzuki (no relation), was the Postmaster of the Yoshidahama Post Office. Although the building still stands, everything inside was lost. The waves rolled over all of the low-lying rice paddies, pushing cars off the embankment roads which divide them, and made it all the way to the Seiyu (a supermarket) and 77 Bank which are in the very center of our tiny town, more than a kilometer inland. The deep gullies between the Seiyu and Shiomidai neighborhoods are full of smashed lumber, cars, and sea water.

The rice paddies are still full of sea water, but have drained enough (rice paddies require constantly moving fresh water, so they are engineered to drain well but slowly) to expose many more cars in them. Beside all of the roads in the area are steep piles of rubble and road signs.

Shichigahama, Japan
View Shichigahama, Japan in a larger map

Photographs can show the extent of the damage, but not the scale. The area affected is so large that even having seen it, it’s difficult to imagine that it could be this bad for a hundred kilometers of coast. Driving down Sangyou Dooro (Route 23), a busy highway close to Shichigahama which is more than a kilometer inland, I saw perhaps a thousand cars thrown inland, some of them stabbed through second-story walls and windows, some squeezed between buildings and telephone poles, and some stacked on top of each other three- and four-high. The Jusco supermarket was flooded until the second floor. And it goes on and on through most of the area I lived, worked, and traveled in Japan.

But despite all of the destruction, Shichigahama is doing amazingly well.

My first stop in Shichigahama was Town Hall, to drop off the food. I went inside to find Plymouth’s friends and take their pictures. I asked about my old boss and friend Fumiaki Watanabe, but they said that he was out. I sat next to him for three years and hadn’t been able to make contact with him since the earthquake, though I knew he was alive.

On my way to see Shigetoshi Saito, who was in one of the lower buildings, Fumiaki Watanabe spotted me from a van he was driving, and ran up and wrapped his arms around me. I knew that he was fine, and of course I expected to be glad to see him. But when I saw him, all of a sudden I cried tears of relief. He was crying first, though, so I’ll blame it on him.

I saw Shigetoshi-san, and he told me to stop taking pictures and go help someone. He was relaxing in front of a kerosene stove at the time.

I went to the mayor, and he was as he always is: a man of few words and many smiles, completely unsurprised by anything.

I saw the vice mayor for a few minutes yesterday to get his picture, and then consulted with him today about donations from abroad. During the meeting, he got a call from a friend and chatted with him for about ten minutes while I waited. Still the same vice mayor. Fumiaki Watanabe, the mayor, and the vice mayor have all lost their homes.

Across the street, I went to Ekiraku Elementary. I saw a few children, all of whom remembered me, and they were happy and playing. I asked the teachers to tell the kids that the whole world and all of the old CIRs (Coordinators for International Relations – my old position) are rooting for them.

I walked through town to the Kokusaimura, the “international village.” Damage is barely visible in that part of town. The town hall just finished its earthquake-proofing, and most of the area is too high to have been hit by the tsunami. Some parts of schools are damaged, but most are in relatively good shape and being used as shelters.

The Kokusaimura has about 300 people staying in it. The water came up to the secondary parking lot, but the building is totally unscathed. The view from the roof above the performance hall is rather different, but the performance hall’s giant glass wall is intact. There are about 20 children staying there, and I was able to give them some candy that I had brought from the United States. They were also able to use the band-aids and aspirin that I brought.

Just after the tsunami, a group of people from southern Japan with a generator truck came to the Kokusaimura and gave it power, so it’s had power the entire time (it’s now back on the power grid). Because of this, supermarkets (which did not have power) donated frozen foodstuffs, so they are not in need of food. But they do have several young children, and they are in need of baby wipes. They also need underwear for women and body wipes (what people are using instead of showers, as there is no running water).

Marti McElreath, the current CIR, is doing fine there, although she has gotten sick. With the cold, snowy conditions and lack of power, very many of the refugees have gotten sick, too. The Kokusaimura is using the changing rooms for the performance hall as quarantine rooms, but they have a full-time nurse and a doctor who stops by twice per day.

I spent the night in the home of Shigeru Suzuki, the Postmaster of Yoshidahama Post Office, who was in Plymouth in 2010. Though the tsunami came within a hundred meters of his home, it didn’t reach it, and he is totally fine. He is currently hosting his cousin, a kimono tailor, who lost his home and everything in it, including his grandmother’s kimonos. But he can still laugh while apologizing for his style, because all of his clothes are donated. It’s almost as if he only lost something he didn’t really need, and I don’t think it’s just an act; I think his perspective has changed. And I’m sure that mine has.

The lines for water are at least 30 minutes, and lines for supermarkets stretch out for hours. There are lines for gas in Shichigahama, but the gas stations are not open. They stretch for more than a kilometer, wrapping around neighborhoods. In Sendai, the lines only stretch for a half kilometer, but it’s because there is a gas station every half kilometer. Shigeru Suzuki is traveling into Sendai every few days with high neighborhood’s empty water tanks and filling them up for them, so that they can avoid lining up and can spend their time being more productive.

Other visitors to Plymouth are helping in large ways, too. Masatoshi Suzuki (no relation), the construction company CEO, has sent his heavy machines to clear the Shichigahama roads. The local government members who have visited are working hard at Town Hall. Hirakatsu Suzuki, who owned the gas station where I used to wash my car (which is how I first met him), has a few fuel tanks, and is dispensing a little bit of fuel for important tasks (like Shigeru Suzuki’s water trips).


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