Rebuilding a Nation

It was 2.45pm on March 11, 2011; everything was normal for Japan’s 127 million residences. It was one of the first days of spring and the air was still crisp, and there was no real hint of the chilling events about to strike the nation.

The 9.0 magnitude quake hit at 2.46pm JST, and it was thanks to Japan’s state-of-the-art Earthquake Early Detection System that gave coastal residents, high-speed transport, major epicentres and factories a 60-second warning before the destruction began. The shake lasted for a terrifying six minutes, and was the largest quake to ever hit Japan; it was the fourth-largest ever recorded in the world. The shaking eventually subsided, and less than 60 minutes after the initial quake, the first of many tsunami waves began to engulf coastal towns of Japan. The tsunami waves reached towering heights of up to 39 metres at Miyako City and travelled inland as far as 10 kilometres into Sendai. They breached and demolished the protective seawalls in several locations, engulfed and mangled three-storied buildings that were providing terrified bystanders with temporary shelter.

Image Yuichiro Haga

The tsunami flooded an estimated area of 561 square kilometres, but the sudden influx of the giant wall of debris destruction wasn’t all… it also flooded a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, disabling the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Diiachi reactors, thereby causing a catastrophic nuclear accident. The nuclear accident was the third disaster that day in 2011, giving the harrowing series of events the name nickname 3/11.

As the debris-laden water eventually settled and subsided, it revealed flattened towns, death and the true extent of the damage. One year on and the total death toll had reached 15,891, with more than 2500 people still missing.

Now, six years on from the disaster, you wonder how the rebuilding of the town of Fukushima is going. The harsh reality is that there is still so much destruction; a woman still living in a ‘temporary’ shelter talks about owning her own home prior to the tsunami: “many survivors live like this, I owned a house for 20 years until the tsunami washed it away. The loan remains but the house is gone. It gets tough if I look back… so I want to walk, looking ahead for my children.”

Restoration of infrastructure damaged by the tsunami has seen steady progress. According to the Agriculture Ministry, 96 percent of farmland in Miyagi and 77 percent in Iwate that had been flooded with seawater has been restored to arable conditions. Since farms around the wrecked nuclear plant remain off-limits, the progress is much slower, with only 46 percent restored. The fisheries output at key ports in the three prefectures has recovered to 70 percent of the pre-2011 levels. More than 90 percent of the damaged railway services and roads have been restored.

A member with the Japanese Search and Rescue team searches through the damage and debris on March 17, 2011, in Unosumai, Japan.

But reconstruction of people’s lives disrupted by the disasters continues to be slow and uneven. Of the 53,000 ‘temporary’ units for evacuees set up in the three most heavily affected prefectures, 45,000 – more than 80 percent of the total – are still standing. The number of residents in such units had fallen to 35,503 as of the end of January 2017 – about 30 percent of the peak – as many of the occupants vacated when they rebuilt their homes or moved to public apartments for the surviving disaster victims. But with nearly half of the temporary units now vacant, the residents who remain are losing the sense of community they once had and face the risk of isolation.

…I owned a house for 20 years until the tsunami washed it away.The loan remains but the house is gone…

Following the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake, which killed more than 6000 people in Kobe and its environs, all temporary units for evacuees were vacated within five years. Of the 51 municipalities in the three Tohoku prefectures that built the temporary units for evacuees, only 11 have managed so far to tear down all of their units – meaning that all evacuees were able to move on to new accommodations. In some municipalities, many of them in Fukushima, where the nuclear-based evacuation has become protracted, it is unclear when all the temporary units will be dismantled.

Bringing things a little closer to home, a lot of southern towns and cities in New Zealand, such as Kaikoura, Wellington and Christchurch, have had residents’ lives changed also. Earthquake survivors now live with the thought in the back of their mind that anything could happen, and at any time. This forces them to be aware of how they need to be prepared for any situation. Armed with an earthquake emergency plan, as well as a portable getaway kit, residents now have a higher chance of survival, but there is always the fear that they may be apart from their families should a disaster hit – at work or somewhere between there and home.

Members of the Fairfax County, Va, Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue, search structures and debris on March 16, 2011 in Kamaishi, Japan.

New Zealand towns are still being rebuilt after past quakes, Christchurch in particular, which was hit by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in 2010 and is still rebuilding its centre. The disaster, however, has forced architects and engineers to design structures that follow new requirements that have, in turn and in conjunction with the opportunity to be innovative, led to some unique buildings that these towns are truly proud of.

Natural disasters are, as the name suggests, disasters and there is only so much that modern technology can predict. But being prepared is the best way to get through. There are excellent resources at getthru.govt.nz to help you be better prepared for a disaster, know what to do during, and where this is support for after a disaster. However, as the survivors will likely tell you, there is no way to prepare for the devastation that a natural disaster can cause, both at the time and for years to come.

The snow doesn’t stop the hunt for unaccounted for family members. Gas masks are work in areas close to Fukushima where the extent of the nuclear contamination is still unknown.