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Shelter life takes mental toll on evacuees

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    Koriyama shelter residents have dinner in their tiny living space, where they will probably have to stay for at least nine more months.
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KORIYAMA, Japan » Life in evacuation shelters is taking a severe psychological toll on those left homeless by Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, a situation likely to worsen as tens of thousands face the prospect of staying at least the rest of the year in temporary housing.

Though the suffering is spread out along Japan’s ravaged northeastern coast, the problem is particularly severe for Japan’s “nuclear refugees,” who were forced to flee from homes near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and have been told to expect to remain in limbo for at least nine more months.

“I have pretty much given up,” said 63-year-old Eiichi Kogusuri, who lives in one of the country’s biggest shelters, a sports arena housing nearly 1,000 refugees in the city of Koriyama, about 40 miles away from the nuclear plant.

“All I do every day is eat, sleep and watch TV,” he said. “Every day seems so long. I’m in my 60s, I have no work. I have nothing to hold on to, and I’m too old to start over.”

Hiromichi Watanabe, a health official for Tomioka, a town of about 16,000 near the nuclear plant, said the condition of the evacuees from his town is deteriorating. Tomioka’s residents have scattered all over the country, but many remain in shelters in Fukushima because they do not want to be completely uprooted.

Nearly three months after the disaster, evacuation shelters in and around Fukushima remain full.

“They can’t think ahead to the future, and this is very hard psychologically,” Watanabe said. “They don’t know when they can go home. Families have been broken up. We need a solution.”

According to government tallies, 98,500 people remain homeless and live in about 2,000 shelters around the country. That number pulls together both those who lost their homes in the March 11 quake and tsunami, and those who were forced to leave the

12-mile no-go zone set up around the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Some evacuees have found lodging with family or friends, while others have been fortunate enough to move into government-supplied shelters, including prefabricated homes or hotels and hot-springs resorts. More prefab homes are being built, but not enough to meet demand.

Watanabe said psychologists have been called in and are now making regular rounds at most major shelters. Doctors are also treating evacuees who show symptoms of depression.

“There is no doubt that we are seeing people dealing with a greater amount of stress,” said Akinobu Hata, director of the Fukushima Mental Health and Welfare Center. “Mainly, it is not serious mental illness, but rather complaints stemming from bouts of depression or other issues from daily life.”

In the first two months after the disaster, nearly 3,000 evacuees in the disaster zone were hospitalized for symptoms related to stress, fatigue or poor sanitation and hygiene, according to a Kyodo News survey of hospitals.

Hata said Fukushima is relying increasingly on local resources as medical teams from outside the region have begun to return home. The need there, however, is not diminishing.

Recovery is under way along the northeastern coast, as towns clean themselves out from under the rubble of the destruction and begin to rebuild. But at Fukushima Daiichi the situation remains unstable, and radiation levels continue to be relatively high in some locations. The government has suggested it will not even consider lifting the evacuation order around the plant this year.

“It’s really hard,” said Kogusuri, a single truck driver from Tomioka who lost both his home and his job. “It’s like everything is just stuck where it is and you can’t move forward.”

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