Tsunami victims in limbo in ravaged Japanese city

2011-05-06 07:44

Ofunato, Japan – Kumiko Oikawa spends most of her day on painstaking work, cleaning up her two-storey house hit by tsunami waves up to six metres high.

“Water completely submerged the first floor of our house,” Oikawa recalled.

The March 11 magnitude-9 earthquake struck north-eastern Japan, generating a powerful tsunami, which devastated this port city, washing away cars, ships and buildings.

The region is well known for its deeply indented coastline, one of the nation’s top scenic sites. But the main part of this city has been reduced to rubble.

The disaster killed more than 14?800 people and left nearly 10?200 unaccounted for, according to recent police figures.

After the tsunami waves receded, Oikawa said she came back to witness extraordinary scenes that she felt were detached from reality.

“The second floor of a taxi company building blocked our gate and a ship was driven up on our vegetable gardens,” Oikawa said, adding that three of her family’s four cars were also swept away.

Oikawa said she had become used to taking shelter in a nearby community centre and did not mind cleaning up the house all day.

“All of our family survived,” she said softly, overlooking a flattened part of the city.

Soon after the quake, a stream in front of her house started flowing in reverse and quickly became a swollen river, she said. That alarming sign prompted her and her family to rush to higher ground.

“I had never seen that before, so we had to run,” she said.

Many of the people in that area did not leave their houses and were engulfed by a tidal wave, locals said.

“People around here used to say tsunamis did not reach this area at the time of the Chile earthquake,” said Oikawa, whose house is located some 800m from the port.

When the 1960 magnitude-9.5 earthquake struck Chile, the resultant tsunami hit this Japanese city, killing 53 people.

This time, 305 people died and 155 were missing in Ofunato, one of the worst-affected areas.

Resident Kenichi Maekawa also saw the swollen river and decided to drive up a hill.

He and his wife survived but their house was destroyed by the tsunami. The two have been staying at an evacuation centre.

Though people in north-eastern Japan are well known for their patience, more refugees had started to gripe about their misery, locals said.

Some 2 300 people have been taking shelter in gymnasiums and community centres in the city, whose population is nearly 40 000.

“Food provided there almost always looks the same,” Maekawa said, smiling wryly. “We have rice balls or sandwiches.”

Maekawa, who has been staying in a community centre with about 200 people, said refugees go to a makeshift bathhouse two or three times a week.

But Maekawa said he takes a bath at his relatives’ place because at the bathhouse many people are soaking in the same bathtub and there is no shower.

Refugees have been waiting for temporary housing to be built.

The Iwate prefectural government is to complete the construction of 15 000 housing units by July, local daily Iwate Nippo reported.

“It will probably take years to go back to my house,” Meakawa said.

Kazue Hosoya, a mother of four, said her house was not damaged but she is concerned about employment opportunities for her and her children.

Hosoya, who now sells pan-fried noodles at a stall outside a local supermarket in Ofunato, landed a job in January at a newly-opened oyster restaurant in the city after working at a local hospital for years.

But that restaurant’s oyster farms were destroyed by the tsunami.

“I hear it would take at least four years to put everything back the way it was,” Hosoya said.

Having lost the farms, the company started selling pan-fried noodles for the time being.

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