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In Japan, Tsunami-Hit Town Still Abandoned, Barren

December 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN:  For those stations not taking a pledge break, we turn to Japan, still reeling from the earthquake and tsunami last March.  Two thousand people were killed in the town of Minamisanriku. It was flattened, and is now abandoned. Alex Thomson of Independent Television News reported from there soon after the disaster, and returned last month.

ALEX THOMSON:  Four stories up, eight months on, and that car is still there. Here in Minamisanriku, more completely destroyed than any other town, they thought the unthinkable. There will be no rebuilding.  People will never live here again. It’s not just the earthquake, the massive tsunami 60 feet high, the very coastline has shifted here.

JIN SATO, mayor of Minamisanriku: (Speaking Japanese).

ALEX THOMSON:  ”Come and see my front door.  I’ll show you,” says the mayor, Jin Sato.

“And that’s the bathroom over there.”

JIN SATO (through translator): Yes, it’s decided. Basically our plan is to move the entire town to higher ground, because the ground level here has dropped by 70 cm. When we get higher tides, they come in and this entire area is underwater.

ALEX THOMSON:  Green seaweed now covers Market Street, once the town’s main shopping area, and the Pacific creeps in at every tide.

A wrecked port submerged, mankind’s surrender to tectonic force.

Last century was about concrete walls repulsing the Pacific. This century is about retreating.

“That suits me,” says Natsuko Sato, searching through the ruins of her old house. “No way am I living here anymore. You can’t rebuild here.” And she should know. The house was flooded out in the 1960 tsunami.

Tourists now visit the town’s Disasters Emergency Center, a shrine to the 20,000 people killed along this coast.  Jin Sato, the mayor, was here. He survived by clinging to the mast on the roof. Twenty colleagues did not.

Survivors mostly live in 56 prefabricated encampments up in the hills, like former Komodo embroiderer, Kuniko Suzuki.

KUNIKO SUZUKI, resident (through translator):  I was chatting to a neighbor in her car. They were saying there could be a tsunami or maybe not. Then I saw the tsunami come in.

I started running, but got caught by the water. My daughter-in-law was with me, but my legs are bad.

So I said, “You go on,” so she did, and I got swept away on the roof of a house.

ALEX THOMSON:  Their cat, Hina (ph), was missing for 20 days and then turned alive, well, but a little confused.

There are islands of attempted normality. The petrol pump, the car wash, in a sea of destruction. The schools on high ground have reopened. But there are no jobs here. Young people up and leave. But go up the hill, and the vice principal of Shizugawa High School says younger pupils remain optimistic their town will be rebuilt somewhere, and have found new value in just being alive.

TAKAKI SATO, vice principal:  When they lose everything, they found that normal life is very, very important. So they will start again. They will begin again.

ALEX THOMSON:  And even after eight months, it’s still not clear where they’ll try to restart a town which is surrounded by mountains. And in this broken place, real anger, therefore, that, as they see it, Tokyo and central government still just can’t grasp the problem.

JIN SATO (through translator): Well, generally, I feel people think less and less about this disaster. When the government met to discuss reconstruction, they just lumped the tsunami and the nuclear disaster together as the same issue. That slowed everything down. The nuclear problem’s ongoing, but the tsunami was a one-day event. They should have got on with it. It’s just slowed everything down.

ALEX THOMSON:  Don’t take my word for it, he says. All officials will say that. Eight months ago, we filmed this pulverized town 48 hours after the tsunami. Today, you will see this, millions of yen spent, the rubble largely cleared. But that’s about it.

Surely this is an indication. Eight months on of the scale of the task still facing what used to be a town here. On the one hand, a heap of rubble 30 or 40 feet high, perhaps a quarter of a mile across.  This is essentially the old town heaped up here. And that dwarfs, in turn, the giant steam train which used to stand as a monument in the center of what used to be Minamisanriku.

Collected and heaped up, now they have to clear it all away. And other towns are watching closely.  Rikuzentakata and Otsuchi up the coast face the same issue, to rebuild or somehow try to move inland to the hills which involves flattening mountainsides at enormous cost.

A few yards away from here, Natsuko Sato has found what she came for, a treasured stone. It used to be in the old garden, in the old house, in the old town.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Scientists now believe the earthquake caused a rare double wave tsunami capable of traveling a long distance without losing power.