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Roads that no longer exist in a town that isn't there

Japan, April 10, 2011

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The town of Rikuzentakata has been wiped off the earth.

We started seeing the muddy debris more than five kilometers from the coast, where the tsunami had swept up a river and spilled over the banks, destroying everything it crossed. As we entered the town itself, the piles of wreckage on either side of us reached to the height of the roof of the car. In front of us was a wide flat area that had once been a town.

There were a few high buildings left, the sky showing through empty windows where the glass and everything else had been ripped away. In a few places that had been cleaned of debris, we could make out flat concrete foundations among the sand and mud. Thick concrete buttresses attested to the existence of a large bridge, once. Otherwise there was very little to tell us what the town had looked like. The whole area smelled of having been very quickly and very thoroughly soaked in brackish water.

Our GPS navigation system suggested turns on roads that no longer exist, and indicated convenience stores — now razed to the point where we never would have known they had existed — as landmarks. We passed a five-story building and could see the curtains in the untouched windows on the fifth floor. Everything below that had been washed out.

We drove up to the school serving as an evacuation center. In front of it were several rows of neat white one-story structures: the first 36 temporary houses, completed less than a month after the disaster. When we walked up, workmen were unwrapping flat screen TVs to join the microwave, rice cooker, fridge, washing machine and air conditioner already installed. Each temporary house even had its own mailbox.

Still, though, this set of 36 only covered one percent of the need in Rikuzentakata alone, and though they were built very quickly, future construction will be slowed by lack of land availability. It will take a long time for all the people who lost their houses to move out of the high schools and gymnasiums that are holding them now.

Our Peace Winds Japan partners are supporting the move to temporary housing by providing kitchen sets, bedclothes and other basic necessities when people move in. While they were busily preparing for that distribution, we were also looking at what we could do for longer term economic recovery in the Rikuzentakata area.

At first glance, the prospects for an economic recovery project looked bleak. People we asked told us there were no shops operating in Rikuzentakata. Everything had been washed away. With many vehicles also missing and severe gasoline shortages, it meant that not only the evacuees but even those people whose houses were on high ground were dependent on food distributions, since there was simply nowhere else to find groceries.

Four weeks before in Rikuzentakata — as in any other city in Japan — you could have gone to a convenience store at any hour of the day or night to buy ramen, rice balls, cookies, microwaveable meals, socks, soap, hot coffee, or cold tea.

Eventually we located a temporary shop set up by a chain store, Maiya. Although the Rikuzentakata Maiya store had been damaged beyond recovery, they were able to bring in goods from another store a few towns over, and had set up a tent and small prefab room for selling.

Apparently just finding the land to set up the tent on was difficult, since most of the flat land had been overrun by the wave and most of the land in the hills was privately owned and closely covered by houses. Finally a doctor had offered his garden for the use of the store, and subdued families came in a trickle to buy basic goods.