Japanese residents try to get home; thousands of displaced quake victims in makeshift shelters

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By Rick Maese
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 10:22 PM

FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN -- Yasunori Takahashi was just trying to get home. The 58-year-old Fujitsu employee was in Sendai last week on a business trip. He boarded the fast-moving bullet train Friday morning, eager to return to Toyko and his wife and two children.

"Then everything started shaking," he said of the earthquake that rocked the country Friday, prematurely halting his train ride home and dealing a devastating series of aftershocks with which Takahashi and much of Japan is still trying to sort.

"They told us the train would not continue and everybody was responsible for themselves," he said. "So we left."

Takahashi made the brief walk to the nearest station and is now stranded about 135 miles north of Tokyo in Fukushima, a city with a population of less than 300,000. More than two days later, the area is still reeling from the consequences of the deadly earthquake. In Fukushima, more than 1,100 people were unaccounted for, according to Kyodo News. Many others have been left homeless. Most of the city's electricity was restored Friday, though running water is nearly impossible to find.

Takahashi is one of thousands of Japanese making his home at a make-shift evacuation center. Without train service or working bus lines, Takahashi has no way home. He's resting his head for the time being in the judo gymnasium at Tachibana High School.

There were more than 800 people who called the school home shortly after the earthquake struck, but the population has since shrunk to about 100 as most have found other accommodations. Dozens of similar shelters have been established across the region for the thousands of displaced earthquake victims, most providing a roof, food and water.

Tachibana has evacuees spread across two gymnasiums. The judo gym -- with its space heaters and judo mats doubling as mattresses -- is the coveted spot. At one end of the room, a radio blares earthquake updates and at the other, a laptop streams television news reports.

The temporary residents describe a "boring" daily routine. They swap their tales of woe. Wait for the next meal. And plot their way to other accomodations. The gym is dimly lit, mostly quiet and judo mats blanket much of the floor. Shoes are left at the front door, and water is brought in buckets at a time, much of it drawn from a nearby river by firefighters. Some of the elderly patients require IVs or wheelchairs and a few small children sprint from one end of the gym to the other.

The evacuees visit convenience stores to purchase newspapers, magazines and books, which are quickly circulated around the gym. Mostly, they wait for signs of hope that life might be normal again soon.

Across the gym from Takahashi, Fumie Ishijima read a children's book to her four-year-old daughter, Erika. The conditions aren't ideal, but Ishijima, 39, was grateful to be with family.

She had just picked up Erika from preschool Friday when Japan started to tremble. "It wouldn't stop shaking," Ishijima said.

Ishijima shielded her daughter with a mattress and a pillow and then sprinted outside as soon as the earthquake finished. They were safe, but their home was not. The seven-floor apartment building suffered shattered windows and serious structural damage. Ishijima couldn't close the doors and could even see a long beam of light poking through a crack in one wall.


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