After Japan’s tsunami, a town climbs back


Town employee Jinicho Sasaki is the point man for everything that comes into town in Minamisanriku, Japan.He has three cell phones to keep up with inquiries from donors and volunteers. (Chico Harlan/THE WASHINGTON POST)

He writes “OK” several dozen times each day, and Jinichi Sasaki figures he’ll scribble the word for years before anything about his town feels right again.

In this tsunami-obliterated fishing port, rebuilding begins with one word, which Sasaki, a municipal employee, writes — in English — on every invoice and delivery form. He uses it in lieu of a signature, in part because he likes its simple utility — an antidote for a place that was destroyed. A truckload of rubber boots: OK. A fresh crate of rubbish bags: OK. Forty thousand 500-milliliter bottles of water: OK.

Minamisanriku needs all of these things, and after Sasaki stamps his approval on the paperwork, volunteers stack the just-unloaded items in the sports arena that, eight weeks after the tsunami, keeps this town on life support. This is where Sasaki works, carrying three cellphones to keep pace with calls from donors, reminding them of the town’s ever-changing wish list. Inside the arena, boxes of clothing and canned food reach the rafters. Outside, rubble extends for 3.5 square miles.

A sequence of natural disasters March 11 reduced Minamisanriku to a place of profound grief and need. With rebuilding efforts in their infancy, officials such as Sasaki are realizing that the town’s shortages — too few supplies, too few jobs, too little safe land for new homes — could persist as long as the bad memories.

Sasaki’s worrying about the town’s needs prevents him from dwelling on his own. On March 11 he lost his car, his childhood home and his mother. At one point he was swallowed by the tsunami wave, long enough to think about his family and resign himself to death.


Since then, he has worked 60 days straight, and he has come to think that he’ll spend the last 12 years of his career — until retirement, at 60 — procuring and OK’ing the items necessary for an epic rebuilding project. Sasaki often updates the town’s Web site, maintaining a list of Minamisanriku’s top priorities. One month ago, the town had no sugar, no soy sauce, no nail clippers and no masking tape. Now it needs vegetables, cooking oil, sandals and toilet paper.

“Sasaki-san,” one town employee in a pink vest tells him, “there are six trucks outside waiting to unload.”

OK.

“Sasaki-san, the Shizugawa High School evacuation center wants 2,000 plastic bowls,” a co-worker calls to tell him. “Can you help us?”

OK.

“Are you Sasaki-san?” asks a man in a windbreaker, walking into the arena. The man says that he has come from Oita Prefecture, the opposite corner of the country, because he has the skills to do electrical repair work and wants to volunteer.

“OK,” Sasaki says, directing the man to a volunteer help desk.

Reevacuating

The tsunami damaged about 70 percent of Minamisanriku’s buildings and left 1,157 people — of a pre-disaster population of 17,666 — dead or missing. It ripped away the library, the hospital and 24 other public facilities, and left 700,000 tons of debris. It churned the ground with such ferocity that the town was lowered 2 1/2 feet. It knocked out electricity, which wasn’t restored until April 15, and the water supply, which won’t be rebuilt for six months. It killed 39 town officials, including the 24-year-old who stayed on lower ground, using a loudspeaker to warn of the incoming wave. It left the town so bereft of basic lifelines that emergency workers are encouraging Minamisanriku’s evacuees to reevacuate to other towns, with the possibility of returning in six months when more housing is available.

“Some people are resistant about leaving Minamisanriku,” said Kiyotaka Miura, the town’s crisis management coordinator. “But for those who stay, it won’t be very comfortable for them.”

The arena, one of the few buildings on higher ground, serves as a staging area for Minamisanriku’s recovery efforts. Here, the post office operates out of a Toyota van, and members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces distribute gasoline from two green drums.

Here, too, the mayor, Jin Sato, sometimes walked outside at night during the first weeks of the disaster, sobbing and thinking about the day ahead. He’d hum a familiar song — “joy, sadness, come and go . . . ” — and then head back inside.

Six hundred evacuees live at the arena, and on one announcement board near the entrance, 18 pieces of paper, tacked together, list the identifying characteristics of hundreds of bodies pulled from the rubble. A newspaper deliveryman who lives at the arena went to a makeshift morgue at the back of the same building one day last month and identified his mother, finding her name as she’d written it on the bottom of her pajama pants.

Small benchmarks

As thousands of evacuees leave for farther-flung areas — Minamisanriku has 41 shelters; municipal officials want to reduce that number to five — the low-lying part of town feels more and more like a muddy convention site for laborers, engineers and volunteers.

A national reconstruction council based in Tokyo has called for a decentralized recovery strategy that gives towns wide latitude to pursue their own ideas.

So Minamisanriku officials have drafted the first round of plans, which have not been formally released. Its computer-generated images show a town that again feels like a town. A man-made hill along the coastline, blocking future waves. A park area for children. A flourishing fish market.

Fishing has long sustained the economy here, and leaders want to stick by that as they rebuild. “We will obviously go back to the sea,” said Akira Oikawa, a town official who has put together a two-inch binder of reconstruction research.

Officials acknowledge that the rebuilding efforts will encounter obstacles — particularly as residents weigh whether to live within view of the ocean or stay clear of its danger. Some will want to live on mountains that cloak the former city; problem is, the local government owns only one hilltop and will need to negotiate with private owners to claim the remaining areas. Others, despite the recent devastation, will want to live on lower ground, as their ancestors did; problem is, many elderly would have a hard time evacuating in an emergency, even with the best-formed plans.

“To coordinate these different opinions,” said Sato, the mayor, “will be very difficult.”

By September, Minamisanriku hopes to have 3,500 temporary prefabricated houses for evacuees. But most dates and timelines are largely a matter of guesswork. Even as the town counts on the shipment of more prefab houses, it hasn’t figured out where to put the bulk of them. Likewise, if fishermen manage to buy new boats, they still don’t have a place to sell the catch. And the tourists who were drawn here by the allure of fresh aren’t around to buy them.

Rebuilding benchmarks, then, come in smaller forms, and these are the ones Sasaki tries most to think about. A calendar hangs above his desk, and every day, he circles that date in the morning, X’s it out when he leaves at 9 p.m.

And every day, it seems, the town is taking another small step.

April 20: Sasaki receives 100 cases of bananas and 10 19-inch televisions.

April 25: Japan’s military searches one final time through the rubble for bodies, green-lighting the start of a less cautious debris-removal process.

April 26: The local high school baseball team practices for the first time since the tsunami, even though 70 half-finished prefab homes squat across the infield.

And now: Sasaki searches the Web with one of his mobile phones, doing preliminary research to buy a new car, a replacement for the Nissan that was destroyed.

‘Looked like hell’

On March 11, after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit, Sasaki had a responsibility. He needed to drive three miles south and lower a floodgate that would block the ocean from a river.

But he never made it. On a curving road, he saw chaos ahead. Cars accelerating. Water cresting. Coastal houses turning into flotsam. Acting on instinct, he turned his car toward the wave — as if to brace for the collision head-on. He thought, “I’m done,” and soon his car was adrift in the surge, nose pointing down, with water penetrating slowly from lower front section. Sasaki’s car drifted over farmland, and he tried to unlatch the front door. It didn’t move. When a piece of debris, lumber or steel, cracked a small section of the back window, Sasaki used his palms to open a larger space and vaulted out. In the next minutes, he held on to whatever rubble he could, before finally grabbing an electrical wire.

Sasaki spent the frigid night with 20 others on a hillside, naked while his clothes dried, and the next morning he saw what had become of his town. The sun rose at 5 a.m. — “a bright red,” Sasaki said, “and I’ll never forget it” — and the rays exposed a smoky plain of nothingness.

“I was looking at the scene for a long time,” Sasaki said. “I thought dying would have been hell. But what I saw looked like hell as well.”

Rebuilding, Sasaki said, will be difficult, and possible only if the town takes small steps. In his wallet, Sasaki carries the saltwater-encrusted bus ticket that was supposed to take him to Tokyo on March 11, departing at 11:50 p.m. from Sendai. He had been planning to take part in a mah-jongg tournament. The classic Chinese table game used to be Sasaki’s favorite hobby, and although he hasn’t played since the disaster, he still thinks about the game and the skills it requires, and these are the things he talked about as he folded the bus ticket back into his wallet.

“Patience,” Sasaki said. “Perseverance. And courage.”

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