In the month since an epic earthquake and tsunami destroyed Japan’s northeastern coast, evacuation centers have transformed from places where people can stay into places people wish to leave. Most shelters now feature heat and running water and three good meals a day. But they don’t offer privacy, a place to grieve or an opportunity to rebuild. The problem is, few evacuees have found other places to go.
On Monday, Japan’s government announced that it would enlarge the evacuation radius around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant beyond the current 12-mile limit, triggering another influx of evacuees.
Though government spokesman Yukio Edano said the risks of a widespread a radiation leak had become “considerably lower,” he said that certain areas within 12 to 19 miles of the plant, based on radiation readings, will be given mandatory evacuation orders.
Even as Japanese authorities struggle to cope with the forced migration, scrambling to move evacuees into hotels or apartments where conditions are more home-like than in the mass original evacuation centers, they predict that many shelters will continue to operate for months.
It’s a sign of this catastrophe’s magnitude that even those leaving the shelters are moving only to slightly less temporary housing, often far from home. In towns where most buildings have been flattened, there’s still no good answer for the looming question: Where will people go?
“I think it is only when the temporary housing is dismantled and removed that we will be heaving a sigh of relief, when we feel that things are back on track,” said Yasuhiro Kanno, a local government reconstruction official in Rikuzentakata. “But it will take a long time.”
According to statistics from Japan’s national police agency, the March 11 disaster collapsed 47,776 buildings. Another 11,030 partially collapsed. Some 84 burned down. Another 2,736 were flooded above floor level.
In coastal Rikuzentakata, the damage was particularly fierce, with a tsunami wave grinding the town into a de facto landfill. But this weekend, Rikuzentakata become the first town in Japan to offers its evacuees prefab housing.
Thirty-six units were constructed. Each measured roughly 320 square feet. The Japanese Red Cross furnished each with a rice cooker, a microwave and a television. The homes — grayish trailers with wooden panels — were assembled on the grounds of a middle school. Normally, they retail for $23,000.
By the time Rikuzentakata officials were ready to give away the keys, they had 1,160 applicants for three dozen trailers. They put applicants’ names in two boxes, using one box solely for candidates who are elderly, handicapped or have small children. Town officials picked 18 names from that priority box, 18 names from another.