Returning to Tomioka

Earlier this week our group was given a guided tour of the town of Tomioka, a small city affected by the 3.11 earthquake and later the Fukushima nuclear accident. As we walked in and around town, we saw signs of earthquake damage such as large cracks in a few buildings and a bit of damage to road surfaces, but nothing so bad that the community couldn’t recover. However, it was an invisible enemy keeping Tomioka’s residents from coming home. Just north of the town sits the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant. During the tsunami in 2011, the plant’s cooling systems, used to keep its radioactive fuel from melting, failed, triggering a massive meltdown and subsequent explosions on four of the six of the facility’s reactors. These explosions caused extremely hazardous amounts of radioactive material to be launched into the atmosphere and eventually make their way down to the surface around the vicinity of the plant.
Several towns like Tomioka were evacuated immediately and told they would be able to return to their homes, but most still have not been able to come back. Many residents of Tomioka will be allowed to return in the coming months, but many others will not due to varying radiation levels making some parts of town more livable than others. Even the townsfolk who will be allowed back in soon are hesitant to return due to the elevated levels of radiation in the area, as there are many questions that still need to be answered, such as: what will be the long-term effects of the elevated ration levels in the area? If we do move back, will there be others there to help rebuild the community or will we be living in a ghost town?

Another factor contributing to the uncertainty of the area’s repopulation is the community’s distrust of the government and of TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), the corporation that owns the Fukushima Daichi plant. Even though both entities agree that the levels of radiation in parts of Tomioka and in most of the rest of Fukushima prefecture are safe, many citizens are skeptical of their data and its reporting. They believe that Abe Shinzo’s administration, along with TEPCO are trying to downplay the scale and effects of the disaster in order to avoid any bad publicity in advance of the 2020 Olympic Games coming to Tokyo, as many athletes might end up residing in the Fukushima prefecture for the duration of the games.

Such skepticism towards the powers that be, along with the fear and stigma surrounding radiation itself has made life more complicated for many, even on the other side of the prefecture. In the cities of Aizu and Koriyama, far outside the declared disaster area, people are so worried about radiation from the plant that they refuse to let their children play outside and have set up special programs that take kids to other prefectures so that they can play outdoors. Additionally, even though radiation levels in these cities are perfectly safe by all established standards, many are still worried about everything from where they travel to what they eat. Such fear, antagonism and distrust of authority, warranted or unwarranted, has and will continue to make life difficult for large numbers of people living in the prefecture, in addition to those directly affected by the accident.

Rebuilding After 3.11

Early in the week, our group took a drive along part of Japan’s northern coast, some of the hardest hit areas by the tsunami. Much of the area we drove through had been inundated by the massive wave and places that were once filled with houses and shops were now empty patches of overgrown of new sea walls seems to be going on wherever one looks, and the sound of heavy equipment is inescapable. Many roads and bridges wiped out by either the tsunami or the earthquake that preceded it have not yet finished being rebuilt. Even some train lines have not been replaced, as the government has gone with the option of using buses to fill the gap instead. Multiple structures have also been allowed to remain standing as a testament to the death and destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami.
We visited what was an elementary school before the tsunami hit, but is now a dilapidated concrete memorial to victims of the disaster. It was hard to imagine a wave large amount to completely engulf the four story building built on a ridge relatively high above the water. The wave was so large that it swept into the inlet from the ocean, up the ridge on which the school stood, and over the roof, sweeping all who sought shelter there away.
In other towns along the coast, sea walls now stand where houses and businesses once did, as most residents affected by the tsunami and were able to rebuild have moved their homes farther above the water or moved out of the area permanently. Seeing exactly where the water came up to and just how much destruction it caused that is still visible even five years later really helps one to understand how terrifying and devastating it must have been for people more than any boom or television documentary could.

Seeing images and remains of the disaster at first made me think that none who had lived in these areas before would want to move back, due to the great financial cost or the awful memories of the tragedy in addition to a multitude of other reasons. However, I was and still am amazed at the resiliency of the people here. Even now, as the sea walls are still unfinished, residents are building homes and other buildings on higher ground, preparing for the next great tsunami that will inevitably strike the shore again. Shopping centers have also been set up with assistance from the government to help local business owners who lost everything to the disaster to get back on their feet and, in turn, help the local economy at large start anew. The employees and customers in the shops we visited seemed to be in high spirits and hopeful that their communities would thrive again.

In my opinion, the people of these formerly disaster-stricken areas are a shining example of how devastating events like earthquakes and tsunamis should be responded to. Not only have they survived and managed to keep their communities intact, they have decided not to abandon their homeland and are determined to build a better and safer place to live.

First Week in Japan

On Wednesday Professor Bates took our group on a day-long walking tour of Tokyo. We visited the metropolitan building in Shinjuku and then went to the Shinjuku Goyen before walking through Harajuku and the Meiji Jingu. All over the city there are signs of the city’s preparedness for natural disasters, particularly earthquakes. For example, many bridges have been either constructed or retrofitted such that they will shake with the ground in the event of an earthquake and will not collapse nearly as easily as standard structures. Skyscrapers such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building we visited in Shinjuku are also built to withstand earthquakes. The Metropolitan Government building, in particular, is designed so that every chunk of ten floors will shake independently so that the building will not collapse.

Another striking thing about Tokyo is how clean it is. There was hardly any trash scattered around the city, thanks to the legion of workers constantly cleaning up litter and performing other janitorial duties. Even regular employees of businesses are made to clean up the premises in the morning, making every block of the city free of any loose trash or debris.

Yesterday we went to the fish market around very early in the morning and saw all kinds of seafood. We went to an authentic sushi restaurants and I tried so many foods I had never had before like Eel, Octopus, Sea Urchin, and Squid, and to my surprise I enjoyed everything that was put in front of me (with the exception of the Sea Urchin). After that, we explored the city a bit more, visiting a disaster preparation center, where we took part in a simulated earthquake and its aftermath and learned about the best survival techniques in the event of a massive earthquake, and the Tokyo Edo Museum, a museum specializing in the history of the city of Tokyo. In the evening we went to a university in the outskirts of Tokyo and talked to some students about their experiences with the earthquake in 2011. Their firsthand accounts of what happened were very insightful and we learned so much from them. After that we went out to dinner with those of them who could come with us as well as their professor which was an amazing experience. We learned more about Japanese culture and society just from talking with them over dinner than any lecture could . Hopefully we can get back together with them when we’re heading back through Tokyo on our way home next week.

Jersey Shore Tour

This past Saturday and Sunday were very educational thanks to a local geologist in the Tom’s River area of New Jersey. When we arrived in Tom’s River on Saturday she welcomed us and gave us a few introductory lectures about the events surrounding Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath of the storm before we had the opportunity to interview two of her friends who lived in the area when Sandy hit. The information they gave us was very eye-opening and will no doubt be extremely valuable when the time comes for us to put together our projects. After having a great New Jersey diner dinner, the six of us went out to the boardwalk to explore. The New Jersey boardwalk unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There was so much to take in with all of the vendors, great-smelling food and massive crowds of people.

The next day was a great experience as well, as we got a day-long tour of the jersey shore area, checking out the damage done by Sandy that still hasn’t been cleaned up as well as talking with some more residents who experienced the Hurricane’s effects firsthand. One couple we talked to had four feet of water in their house as a result of the storm and they told us about their neighbors, who lost four vehicles in the chaos.

As we were driving around the various communities in the shore area, it was amazing to see how many empty lots there still were years after the hurricane swept through. Many people, rather than try to rebuild, simply left their damaged homes and moved away as it would be more costly to repair their home on the shore. Many of these homes remain today as, aside from the cost of purchasing the home itself, any potential buyer would also have to pay to have the home refitted to meet new building standards put in place after Sandy hit. These regulations include having the house raised a few feet to prevent flooding in the case of another hurricane, a renovation that can be extremely expensive, depending on the size of the building. As a result, many vacant houses sit in the shore area waiting to be bought and lived in despite the high demand for oceanfront property.

It made me optimistic, despite all of the empty lots and still-damaged homes, to see that many people had rebuilt their homes and this time had taken proper precaution by constructing their new homes on stilts so that they would not be flooded if another hurricane were to come through and cover the shore area with water again.