Rikuzentakata fights for survival


Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba lost his wife in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The disaster also claimed the lives of 67 of his local government’s employees. Now he is battling to save his town.

All but a handful of buildings in the town centre were smashed and swept away on March 11. A feature of the town, a pine forest of 70,000 trees, is gone. Just one tree remains. The town’s sandy beach, a favourite family picnic spot, is gone. This once picturesque fishing village, in Iwate prefecture, is now a wasteland.

Fighting back tears, Mayor Toba said: “When I look at what is left it is difficult to accept it as a reality.

“Our fight to survive is just starting. The support of the Red Cross is very much appreciated and very much needed.”

The tsunami killed about 2,000 members of the community. Just about every one of the town’s 22,000 survivors was related to or knows someone who was killed.

“So many people lost a family member or a friend,” said Mayor Toba. “It’s very difficult for them to come back and live in the same place. Yet they also have very strong feelings for this town. I feel the answer is that we have to build a stronger city.”

The local hospital and clinics were destroyed. Japanese Red Cross set up a 24-hour clinic at Daiichi Junior High School, which was also one of the town’s main evacuation centres. There were 1,200 people in the evacuation centre by March 12, the day after the disaster, including retired school principal Mr Yukichi Yokota, who was elected by the people to manage the centre.

“At first, the people in the evacuation centre were silent,” Mr Yokota said. “No one was speaking. They were in shock. We could not believe what had happened. Then after two or three weeks people started looking for their family members and friends. They would go out all day looking for people and then come back to the evacuation centre to rest.

“Now (two months after the disaster) we can start to see a few smiles. The facial expressions are a little bit softer and more gentle and the voices are a bit more gentle.”

Mr Yokota said the Red Cross presence and support were playing an important role in the recovery.

“The goods that we receive, this medical care, this solidarity, these connections between people give us encouragement and energy to continue for the future,” he said. “Thank you for your warm assistance. This is a source of energy for us to go on.”

The Red Cross clinic has been treating about 60 patients a day. A Japanese Red Cross psychosocial team is also stationed at the school to serve the people in the evacuation centre and surrounding districts.

“People are starting to open up to us and talk to us about their feelings,” said Red Cross clinical psychologist Kazumi Sawada. “It is hard for some people because normally some Japanese people don’t like to show a weakness, but once we are able to start a conversation they start telling us about their feelings.”

Local resident Mrs Kiku Sasaki, 77, lost her house and everything in it on March 11. She and her three daughters have been at the evacuation centre since the disaster struck. She is waiting for the local government lottery to select her name for the next available purpose-built temporary house.

“I am very worried about the future,” Mrs Sasaki said. “I try not to think too much about the future because I’m just so worried about what will happen. I just try and think about today and get through today.”

About 2,100 temporary homes are to be built in Rikuzentakata. So far 832 have been completed and are being used. But another 1,040 are under construction and are due to be completed by the end of July. Dozens of them are being built alongside the school. Red Cross is providing people moving into a purpose-built temporary home with a set of basic appliances; a washing machine, fridge, rice cooker, water thermos, microwave and TV.

Ms Lisa Hsu from Taiwan Red Cross presented students at Daiichi Junior High School with messages of support written on large heart-shaped cards from students in Taiwan. The Taiwanese students had sent the cards to Taiwan Red Cross to pass on to the students in the tsunami-hit areas.

A student at Daiichi Junior High said: “We are very happy to receive this. I feel very happy that all over the world children of our age are thinking about Japanese students. This makes us a bit happier.”

Ms Hsu said: “Sometimes it’s the very small things that really encourage people, not only here but also in Taiwan.”

Michael Gillies Smith from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told the students: “By sharing your school, your gymnasium and other rooms and facilities with the people who were affected by this disaster you are playing an important role in helping these people to recover. You are all young humanitarians.”

Mayor Toba believes it will take 10 years to reconstruct and revive Rikuzentakata.

“The most important thing we need is jobs,” he said. “People will not come back if there are no jobs.”

Photo 1: The remains of Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture
Photo 2: Mayor Futoshi Toba: “The most important thing we need is jobs.”
Photo 3: The Red Cross 24-hour clinic at Daiichi Junior High School
Photo 4: Survivor Kiku Sasaki -- “I just try and think about today and get through today”.