First the quake, now the queues

2011-03-15 00:00

IN Sendai city, queues aren’t an unusual sight. Whether it’s a trendy new boutique, a shiny mall opening or a pop idol concert, it’s common to see scores of people lined up, eager to buy whatever is on sale.

Yesterday, however, lines were forming with people waiting to buy essentials like toilet paper and food. On the third day after the earthquake, critical services have mostly been restored, but the vast majority of shops remain shuttered. Aftershocks intermittently rumble through, a constant reminder of the devastation unleashed three days ago.

Across the road from my apartment lies a seiyu. A subsidiary of the American behemoth Wal-Mart, normally the seiyu is a 24-hour operation, selling everything from drain cleaners to sushi at all hours of day and night. Today it opened for three hours, with a strict limit of 10 items per person. The shelves containing perishables had been emptied out before our arrival.

Around town the same pattern prevails. The heart of the city is undoubtedly Sendai station, but today it lay still, with yellow caution tape at all the entrances. All the above-ground railway lines remain shut down. They run along the coast, and when the tsunami came trains were torn from their tracks and wreckage covered the rails. The subway has partially restarted, but all the major shopping malls and retailers remained closed.

In some locations nearby tables have been set up where people can charge their cellphones. A few people sat at them, glumly texting friends and relatives.

At another place a long line of people waited to buy small amounts of food and supplies from a convenience store. Called conbinis in Japanese, they are ubiquitous and usually stay open all the time. Of the dozen on that street only one was open.

At the bus terminals long lines of people were being ushered on to buses taking them back to Yamagata City.

High in the mountains, Yamagata will be a challenging target for relief supplies. Winter has not yet passed and Yamagata is famous for receiving enormous amounts of snow. Ordinarily this results in splendid skiing and snowboarding, but right now recreation is the last thing on any one’s mind.

A few Self-defence Force trucks and water supply trucks are parked outside the city hall, but there’s little sense of urgency there. Most of the physical damage has been outside the core of Sendai city, in the coastal regions. There the tsunami devastated entire communities, resulting in horrendous death tolls.

In the city there is far less visible damage. Some cracks in the pavement here, a shattered window in a car dealership there. However, there’s a very real sense that things are far from normal. A normally bustling metropolis, Sendai is still trying to recover. How long that will take, no one seems to know.

Sendai is a city of about a million people. The capital of the Miyagi prefecture, it’s by far the largest city in the north-eastern Tohoku region of Japan. Its main industries are retail, shipping and medical services. Along with some major universities and tourism, they account for most of the city’s economy. The city has major rail, road and air links to Tokyo and other cities. Largely destroyed during WW2, it was extensively rebuilt along modern lines.

Mayibuye Magwaza (left) is a former Pietermaritzburg resident and Witness employee who lives in Sendai where he teaches English at a technical high school. He also spends a couple of days a week at the elementary school.

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