7 Nov 2011

The Japanese tsunami town on the move

Chief Correspondent

Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson returns to the Japanese town of Minamisanriku to find that rebuilding from the ruins of the tsunami is not an option.

There’s no formal decision. That’s not due till the end of the month. But everyone in Minamisanriku knows the basic plan from the mayor down – and it is brutal.

The mayor himself, Jin Sato standing in front of a patch of rubble-strewn mud near the harbour, which used to be his house, explained it in deadpan tones to Channel 4 News.

“In order for people to sleep safe in their beds at night we just cannot rebuild here,” he said, surveying the devastation as far as the eye can see.

“So it’s decided. Basically the plan is to move the entire town to higher ground.”

Yet when you look around and question where, there is no real answer as yet. The destroyed plain on which this town was built is surrounded by high hills – small mountains you might say. Simply moving a town defies topographical logic.

A town which Minamisanriku has been wrecked by tsunamis three times in a little over a century

But Minamisanriku is not the only place facing this quandary. Up the coast the devastation of Rikuzentakata and Otsuchi is almost as bad.

The crippling problem along this stretch of coast is a triple whammy coming on top of the terrible earthquake and then the tsunami. Such was the power of the quake that the entire coastal belt here has simply lowered into the earth’s crust by 70cm – more than two feet.

This means that at high tides large areas of the port – or what used to be the port of Minamisanriku – are simply inundated by the Pacific. If you like, the tsunami now revisits this broken place every day of the year on a small scale instead of once every fifty or sixty years.

It is a decision which everyone we have met here appears to accept. A town which has been wrecked by tsunamis three times in a little over a century and now simply sits lower in the water is in no real position to be defended by concrete walls – even if they worked.

But there is real anger towards the central government in Tokyo and mayor Jin Sato is not afraid to voice it. Like many officials he is appalled at the slow pace of payments for reconstruction here.

Further, he accuses Tokyo of systematically failing to grasp the nature of the problem. He accuses them of simply bundling their issues up with completely different crises like that of the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.

“In general central government is neglecting these areas. When the government met recently to discuss the reconstruction plan they just talked about the nuclear and tsunami problems as the same.
“But the tsunami was a one day event and the nuclear crisis continues today. They should have acted more quickly over our problems. It slowed the whole thing down.”

So the mayor and his people – mostly housed now in 56 different prefab camps in the hills around where their town used to be – wait in limbo.
The residents in the cramped but spotless new prefabs say they are only supposed to be there for a maximum of two years. But ask them if they seriously expect to be in permanent new housing in some safe location nearby within that time and you will not find mainly takers for that proposition.