Michael Dickison: Evacuees taking life a day at a time

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Herald reporter Michael Dickison has been travelling through the devastation on the coast of Japan. Yesterday, he visited Sendai.

Many of the evacuees whose homes are habitable are still too scared to return to them. Photo / Michael Dickison
Many of the evacuees whose homes are habitable are still too scared to return to them. Photo / Michael Dickison

Forced out of their homes by the ravages of the earthquake, tens of thousands of evacuees in northern Japan remain in welfare centres 11 days later.

Suzuki-san, 75, lost his house to the tsunami and now sleeps in a primary school auditorium.

"Hearts have closed up since the earthquake. Everything has come to a standstill," he says.

"But because it's been hard, we just have to try that much harder."

Mr Suzuki has brought the tools of his trade to the emergency shelter and receives work-related faxes there.

He doesn't know when he can return to living in a house - he hasn't even been back to his neighbourhood since the tsunami - but he says work is the only way to begin rebuilding.

"The older generation has lived attuned to the seasons - spring, summer, autumn and winter," Mr Suzuki says.

"We've experienced both sweet and bitter. So we know what it takes. I've studied life for more than 70 years."

The centre manager says there are enough supplies now after severe scrambling in the first couple of days. But dinner is still just a ball of rice and an orange, which Mr Suzuki slowly picks at.

He didn't hear from his brother for nine days. The brother was swept up in his car by the tsunami and slammed into a power pole. The surge of water sank the car under water, where he sat stuck until three young men noticed and dived in to prise open a door.

He was taken around medical and welfare centres and couldn't make contact.

"When I heard from him, I thought, 'Yes, I can do this.' I don't want to lose to the earthquake," Mr Suzuki says.

"All of us have been through a lot."

Mitsuko Kujiwara, 90, has a house near the centre where she usually lives alone. But until her power, water and gas lines are restored, and she can buy enough supplies, taking care of herself isn't feasible.

"Solitude is another thing. Being alone now right now is chilling," Ms Kujiwara says.

Still, she wants to return home as soon as she can.

Ms Kujiwara remembers the New Zealand Usar team from television and thanks them profusely for rushing in to help. She's also delighted at the novelty of appearing in a New Zealand newspaper.

"New Zealand! It was worth living these 90 years," Ms Kujiwara says.

"I'll have to live to 100. Who knows what will happen by 100."

Her neighbour Kuniyo Takahashi is also at the shelter. She too lives alone. "I can't put words to how frightening the earthquake was," Ms Takahashi says.

"I don't want to experience something like it ever again."

The auditorium is covered with green mattresses, with small bundles of belongings strewn around them. After 11 days, the mass of mattresses seems to have naturally clustered into dwellings, meagre but with evidence of occupation.

There are two gas heaters that small groups of evacuees gather around. Nearing bedtime, volunteers pass around small hot bags - about the size of tea bags - to keep hands warm.

Tanaka-san, another evacuee, can't go home out of fear. Shaken by the earthquake, she has had to be prescribed medication to calm down.

"I keep thinking another big one is coming," Ms Tanaka says.

Being in her house alone is too much stress.

"I want to stay in the centre for as long as I can," she says.

Ms Tanaka works in an eighth-floor office, where work is starting up again. But she has skipped going.

She pictures Christchurch's Canterbury TV building and is afraid her building will collapse.

"That was terrible. So many people died. That's the image I get at the office."

She tries to work up the courage to go every morning, she says.

"Tomorrow I have to be strong. I'll go tomorrow."

A young woman, Shouji-san, has been left homeless after her apartment complex was condemned.

She spent the first few nights after the earthquake in a shelter before going home.

But soon the building was inspected and she was right back at the centre.

"I've started looking around but I can't find another place," Ms Shouji says.

"I'd like to move out quickly, but I'll probably have to stay until they close."

Damaged apartments are squeezing the market, and the safe ones can't be rented out until they've been inspected. With so many people left without a home, finding permanent accommodation could be a long process.

The centre manager, Imaizumi, says authorities are working to close the shelter in three or four days.

Staff are in the process of finding out the individual concerns that prevent evacuees from going home.

For some elderly evacuees, the problem can be as simple as getting help cleaning up their houses. So many objects fell off shelves to scatter across floors that there is nowhere to walk and it is too big a job for one old man or woman to tidy.

Extra medical help and supplies are also being offered.

"Things have calmed down considerably," Mr Imaizumi says. "But the makeup of those who are left is of people with the deepest problems."

The centre is near the central train station, so it was overwhelmed during the evening immediately after the quake. Almost 2000 people seeking shelter spilled out of the auditorium and filled several classrooms. Now, the number has dropped to below 100.

But the shelter is just one of about 200 in Sendai City alone.

The city council runs 112 others for provinces and people with special needs.

And these are just a fraction of the total, with tsunami damage stretching along a long coastline spanning three prefectures. Entire towns have also been evacuated from near the overheating nuclear plant in Fukushima.

The huge migration of people will take a long time to settle down.

- NZ Herald

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