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Before it can rebuild, Japanese town must survive

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OTSUCHI, Japan >> The crumpled cars have reddened with rust, and spring rains and a warming sun have left the ashes and mud hardened into an earthen plate of armor. But Satoshi Watanabe still comes every day to pick through the charred debris that was once his home, searching for the remains of his 2-month-old infant daughter.

She was swept away by the tsunami that flattened much of this fishing town and killed his wife, mother and two other young daughters. Once he finds the missing child, Watanabe said, he will leave this town and its painful memories for good.

“No one wants to build here again,” said Watanabe, 42, who spoke in short sentences punctuated by long sighs. “This place is just too scary.”

Two months after a huge earthquake and tsunami, devastated coastal communities like this one remain far from recovery and, with many working-age people moving away, they face the prospect that they could simply wither away and, ultimately, disappear.

With neither homes nor jobs to lose, and fearing another tsunami from the continuing aftershocks, many residents have already left. Town officials now fear losing the bulk of working-age families, leaving this already graying town with an overwhelmingly elderly population that might lack the energy or the incentive to undertake a lengthy reconstruction.

And that poses another hurdle. Experts have said that it could be a decade before the rebuilding is complete and the number of jobs returns to anything like its former level — another reason, many experts and townspeople worry, for working-age residents to flee.

“Otsuchi must move quickly in order to survive,” said Seiichi Mori, an economist at Gifu Keizai University who is helping draw up recovery plans.

As a stopgap measure, Otsuchi announced in late April that it planned to hire 270 townspeople to remove debris. But with a lengthy reconstruction ahead, many experts and townspeople fear an exodus of younger residents, who cannot wait years for a job.

Town officials say they are trying to draw up plans that will entice younger residents to stay. Most of the ideas are coming from Tokyo and call for grand schemes to move coastal towns to higher ground by constructing huge platforms or shearing off nearby mountaintops — the sorts of megaprojects that Japan may no longer be able to afford.

But town officials say they are overwhelmed by more immediate demands, like relocating the 2,247 residents who still sleep on the floors of school gymnasiums and other cramped refugee centers to longer-term temporary housing, or finding, and burning or burying, the 1,724 dead and missing in this town, which had 15,239 residents before the tsunami.

Just cleaning up the mounds of debris left by the waves, which towered as high as 50 feet and destroyed more than half of Otsuchi’s homes and buildings, will very likely take a year. The town’s administrative functions were also crippled by the waves, which gutted the town hall and killed the mayor and some 30 town employees.

“We are far from reconstruction,” said Masaaki Tobai, 66, the vice mayor, who stepped in to lead the town and who survived by scrambling to the town hall’s roof. “Medical services, administration, education, police, fire, retail stores, hotels, fishing cooperative, farming cooperative, industry, jobs — all are gone, all washed away.”

In other hard-hit areas, particularly around the region’s main city, Sendai, there are already signs of recovery, with the cleanup well under way and full bullet train service having resumed. But more remote communities like Otsuchi, on the rugged coast further north, are falling behind.

While the shortages of food and drinking water of the first desperate weeks are over, the town remains a flattened landscape of shattered homes and crumpled vehicles, where soldiers still pull a dozen bodies or so from the wreckage every day. Restarting the local economy appears a distant prospect. This coastal area of rural Iwate Prefecture has long lagged behind the rest of Japan. The average annual income in Otsuchi is 1.7 million yen, around $21,000, about 60 percent of the national average. In this fishing port, most of the work was either on fishing boats that worked local oyster, scallop and seaweed farms or in canneries and seafood-processing plants along the wharfs. All were destroyed by the tsunami.

Last month, the town’s chamber of commerce surveyed local business owners. Only half said they definitely planned to rebuild their businesses in Otsuchi.

The chamber, however, was able to survey only 114 business owners, just a quarter of its membership before the tsunami. It is now based in a prefabricated hut on the sports field of a burned-out elementary school and is still trying to locate about 300 other members.

“We know we need to create jobs,” said Chieko Uchihama, an official at the chamber, “but how do you do that when you don’t even know who survived?”

 

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