Earthquake in Japan- Moving Out of Evacuation Shelters

The evacuation shelter in the small town of Ayukawa (part of the greater Ishinomaki City) used to be the town hall. A three-story, concrete building of off-white paint, it sits atop a hill, which is what saved it from going underwater. The majority of the rest of the town was hit by multiple waves.

Just a flight of stairs below the shelter is the community center, one of the few buildings in the lower valley that still stands. Cleaned and fixed up, this building is now being used as a volunteer center. But despite its closeness to the shelter, I never had a chance to speak at length with any of the evacuees. Maybe it was the poor weather (a hurricane was coming through while I was there), maybe it was bad timing, but as far I could observe, evacuees rarely left the shelter.


Efforts to Help Evacuees Out of Shelters

In recent weeks evacuation shelters in the region have been closing down. There's an effort to move evacuees to temporary housing units, where unlike at the shelters, they can enjoy the comfort of a private space, with their own kitchens, sinks, bathrooms and bedrooms. The units are being offered in a lottery-based system- if you get picked, you get to move in first.

Places in western Japan, as far out as Kyushu, have built large temporary housing complexes containing thousands of units, that offer free housing and utilities for evacuees from the disaster. Some towns, including Fuji, where I live, have offered jobs to evacuees to help their families get back on their feet.

Many coastal villages were wiped out entirely, prompting efforts to bring all the people of these various villages together, and to re-build newer, larger, consolidated towns at higher, safer elevations.

And this all sounds like progress

But it just isn't that easy.

Lottery picks are left unclaimed. Temporary units that should have been filled weeks ago remain empty. Those thousand units in a town in Kyushu? Only four units are occupied. That coastal communal village? No one wants it.

Evacuees aren't anxious to get out. Yes, the stress levels are mounting, there's no privacy, food is mostly processed stuff, and the general lifestyle simply isn't healthy, physically or mentally.

But moving out isn't such a happy deal either. Nice bathtub, but who's paying the heat? Great kitchen, but who's buying the food? Moving to housing also means finding a job, paying the bills. But stay in the shelters, and you're guaranteed water, food and warmth.

Offers for free jobs and housing sound great, but when it's twenty prefectures away, one hesitates. And the worst hit victims are starting from less than scratch. The senior citizens who spent their entire lives in the town. Those who are suddenly alone after losing their entire families to the disaster. People who spent decades getting where they got, refining their trade, refining their art, only to find it literally washed away. And there are memories here. And maybe also the very faint hope of it all coming back. You can't just demand these people to pick up a new skill, get on up and move.

Consolidated villages on higher ground sound good too. But those villages were by the coast for a reason. Because the town was built on fishing and ports. Some of these villages are only twenty or thirty families large. Take away the sea, and there's no trade left for the entire town's population. They want to get back on their ships, get back to their jobs, but they can't do that if they're new house is up a mountain.

And consolidation? Fishermen have spent years defining their territories of ocean, and spoken and unspoken rules uphold the fishing trade. You can gather all the fishermen from all the different villages, but ignore their rules and territories, and it won't be a happy union.


These are the stories and words that are flying in and around the news. It's wrong to say there isn't an effort for progress. But three months post-quake and things have only gotten started.

I wished I could have better understood the evacuees in the shelter on top of the hill. But it was always quiet there, with hardly a sign of activity. It's presence asserted only by its glowing row of windows- the only source of light in an otherwise pitch back field of rubble and silence.

Maybe it was in my own self-indulgence that I wanted to speak to them more, to wonder why they wouldn't come out. Maybe not, I don't know. But there's nothing left of theirs in the town- no home obviously, but no parks or shops to go to either. And that's just a shallow outsider observation from a visitor like me- I won't pretend that I understand their more deep-rooted reluctance to step out to a sight of a hometown that once was. 

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