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A hard-hit Japanese city sees signs of hope in road repair, reopened shops

Tens of thousands of tons of concrete, wood, and metal – the remnants of houses, shops, and boats destroyed when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11 – are piled neatly along the sidewalks of Ishinomaki, one of the worst-hit cities when the tsunami hit land.

The waste is separated into categories for disposal with string, like police tape marking a crime scene, as the region sets about the huge task of recovering from damage unseen in Japan since the end of World War II.

Ishinomaki lost more than 5,500 of its 163,000 citizens; some 2,770 of those are still unaccounted for. The national death toll, meanwhile, is estimated at nearly 14,000, with another some 13,000 still missing. The walls of the city’s evacuation centers are still papered with missing posters full of photographs of loved ones and cellphone numbers to call if they are found.

Still, amid all the unmissable signs of destruction, there are the beginning indications of recovery. Workers at Japan’s stricken nuclear plant in nearby Fukushima Province began moving tons of highly radioactive water from a reactor building to on-site storage Tuesday. Local flights returned to Sendai late last week. And Ishinomaki has been transformed from the city of flooded streets and hungry citizens that it was just three weeks ago. Shops, even in the districts overwhelmed by water, are reopening, and roads are being repaired. Of the more than 53,000 people who were living in shelters a few weeks ago here, 14,778 remain, and the rest have returned to their homes or are staying with relatives, according to Yoshinori Sato, a city official.

“We have been told that money is coming from the central government to pay for the rebuilding and recovery program,” says Mr. Sato. Though how much money will come, or when it will come is still up in the air, he adds.

For now, Ishinomaki will take help from wherever it can get it. The city has received a donation of 100 million yen ($1.2 million) from Maruhan, a Japanese company that runs a chain of pachinko parlors – a pinball-like gambling game that has a distinctly shady image and operates in a legal gray area.

Back in business

Businesses on the old shopping thoroughfare known locally as Manga Street, named for the legendary cartoonist Shotaro Ishinomori, are opening up. The tsunami had lost much of its destructive power by the time it came up the Kitakami River and flowed down Manga Street, drenching buildings but leaving them standing.

“I opened up as soon as the electricity was restored at the beginning of April. Customers are starting to trickle back,” says Jinji Takahashi, while wiping down packets of Japanese tea that his family has been selling in this spot since 1935.

Mr. Takahashi, who remembers the damage from the 8.2 magnitude earthquake centered in nearby Aomori in 1968, says that his insurance doesn’t cover natural disasters and that he doesn’t know if his business will recover this time.

“The people who are rent their shops on this street may just give up, but for those of us who own our premises, we have no choice but to try and carry on,” says Takahashi.

Meanwhile in Sendai…

In nearby Sendai, a city of 1 million – the regional capital of the Tohoku region and the largest metropolis to be hit hard by the March 11 disaster – the local government, businesses, and residents are starting to see some slow progress as well.

Last week, Sendai Airport – where 1,600 people were stranded on the upper floors of its terminal buildings for three days by floodwater after the tsunami – reopened for regular domestic flights. The runways were actually returned to use less than a week after the survivors were rescued, after herculean efforts by US military personnel.

“Basically the US Army cleared the whole place out and ran flights of supplies into the airport around the clock from March 20 to April 8,” explains an airport spokesperson.

“We thought it would take at least three months to get the airport running again [ for civilian flights]. What they did was incredible,” says the spokesperson.

The six flights a day that are currently running to Osaka and Tokyo’s Haneda airport are packed with businesspeople, many trying to get their regional offices functioning again.

Sendai’s seaport, completely overwhelmed by the tsunami, also reopened with limited capacity on April 16, though it can’t yet handle the kind of large containers needed to bring urgently-needed supplies into the area.

Other hurdles

Across Japan, people are comparing the speed of recovery efforts and the slow construction of temporary homes following the March 11 disaster to the Kobe earthquake in 1995, which killed some 6,300 people but had homes built within weeks.

“We face multiple difficulties in getting homes built in the area,” says Yasuo Aramoto, president of Selco Homes, Sendai’s biggest prefab house specialist. “You can’t put houses up in the areas that were flattened by the tsunami, as people think it would be crazy to put them in such vulnerable places again. And the safer ground, like higher up in the hills, has no infrastructure for gas, water, or electricity.”

Beyond the logistical issues, fears of contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 90 miles away are scaring foreign ships’ crews from coming anywhere near the port, despite the fact that radiation readings in Sendai are lower than in many of the cities they are sailing from.

“I currently have a shipment of 2,000 prefab homes on their way from Canada, and I can’t even get the German shipping company which is bringing them to dock in Tokyo because they’re scared about radiation,” says Mr. Aramoto. “They’re now headed for Kobe and I will have to bring them [nearly 500 miles] up by road. It’s ridiculous.”

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