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