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Returning to Touhoku

Japan, May 13, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Malka Older/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps and Peace Winds are sponsoring a free bus that takes people from the evacuation centers there to Ofunato for shopping, hospital visits, or just to get out for a day. Photo: Malka Older/Mercy Corps

In the three weeks since I left Japan, the demolished town of Rikuzentakata has changed very little. Where before the wreckage was spread more or less evenly over the broad space that used to be the town center, it has now been pushed, by dint of heavy machinery and thousands of man-hours, into hills, some of them 30 feet high.

In some places the debris have been sorted: wall paneling, twisted metal railings, car after crushed car. In some places the muddy ground is visible. Some of the detritus has probably already been carted away in some of the dump trucks that we pass on the road, but it’s hard to see a noticeable difference. Rikuzentakata remains destroyed, and the violence of its end remains very much in evidence.

Ofunato, 20 or 30 kilometers to the north, is recovering faster. More of the town is perched on the hillsides and escaped the force of the tsunami, although most of the shopping area and the facilities related to the fishing industry were washed away. As we drive in, I’m encouraged to see more shops with the glow of fluorescent ceiling lights showing through their windows. I see at least one big sign: Open for Business on May 14th!

The first group of temporary houses has also just been completed in Ofunato. We drive up to the middle school and walk to the sports grounds behind it, now filled with over 100 neat, pre-fab row houses, complete up to the curtains in their windows. Over the weekend my colleagues at Peace Winds Japan will distribute basic goods, such as futons, kitchen utensils, and towels to the temporary houses, so that their new residents can feel at home immediately after two months in a crowded evacuation center. A few days after that Peace Winds and Mercy Corps will distribute vouchers that can be used at two shops in Ofunato to the evacuees, letting them buy anything additional that they need and supporting the shops as they try to get back to business.

Even in Rikuzentakata there are some hopeful signs. Mercy Corps and Peace Winds are sponsoring a free bus that takes people from the evacuation centers there to Ofunato for shopping, hospital visits, or just to get out for a day. On Monday we’ll be attending the kick-off ceremony for the first mobile shop in Rikuzentakata, which will not only give the shop-owner a chance to restart his business on a small-scale, but will also provide a much needed service to people without cars, since there are currently only two small shops open in the town.