Nearly 5 years after the Great East Japan Earthquake 14,000 temporary housing units are still occupied!


SENDAI — At least 14,000 prefabricated temporary housing units are expected to remain occupied in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures as of April 1, five years after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey.

Following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, all temporary housing units were vacant after five years. The government plans to move people out of all the temporary housing units in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures by 2020, but a system must be created to deal with the fact that reconstruction efforts are taking a long time.

30% of peak figure

A 49-year-old female restaurant employee in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, was selected for public reconstruction housing at the end of 2014, but she has not been able to move there yet because the units are expected to be completed at the end of this year at the earliest.

The temporary housing unit she lives in now is cold due to its thin walls and hot in summer because of the corrugated iron roof. When she thinks that she will be there for about another year, she cannot help but sigh.

“At first, I thought I’d live in a temporary housing unit for about two years. I didn’t think this life would go on for so long,” she said.

As of the end of November 2015, there were 30,293 prefabricated temporary housing units in the three prefectures, with 62,798 people living in them. The Yomiuri Shimbun asked 46 municipalities operating these temporary housing units about the number of units they estimate there will be as of April 1, when the new fiscal year starts.

Among the municipalities, 34 gave estimates amounting to a total of 14,058 units. This figure is equivalent to about 30 percent of the peak figure in April 2012 of 48,628 units, which were managed by 51 municipalities.

The remaining 12 municipalities did not give a concrete number of temporary housing units, but the Kesennuma municipal government in Miyagi Prefecture, which has 2,351 units, said: “We expect at least 2,000 units will remain, but we still don’t know the exact number.”

Other municipalities also said the outlook remained unclear, meaning the actual number of remaining temporary housing units as of April 1 is certain to be more than the total compiled in the survey.

Asked about the prospects of moving people out of temporary housing units in fiscal 2016, three municipalities said they could not draw up prospects, while 14 said they would not be able to empty almost any of the units.

Under the Building Standards Law, people are allowed to live in temporary housing units for up to two years. However, if a disaster is given special designation by the central government, the period can be extended by one year every year.

The residence period was extended following the Great Hanshin Earthquake, for which the number of temporary housing units peaked at 46,617. The number of residents in those units was reduced to zero five years later.

Completion delays

Municipalities have had a hard time emptying their temporary housing units because of prolonged reconstruction work in disaster-affected areas. Large-scale civil engineering work, such as the creation of high land and the elevation of land in relocation areas, has been conducted to enhance anti-disaster measures. This has delayed the building of public reconstruction housing.

According to the three prefectures, the completion rate for public reconstruction housing units stood at 46 percent as of the end of November 2015. In municipalities where flat land is scarce — such as Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, and Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture — the rate is somewhere between 20 to 29 percent. The completion rate for evacuees who fled as a result of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture also remains low, at 18 percent.

According to a survey conducted by the Ishinomaki municipal government in Miyagi Prefecture, 1,117 households, or about 15 percent of disaster-affected households, are still unsure about housing once they leave the temporary units. Residents will have to pay rent for the public reconstruction housing units, although it will be relatively cheap.

In contrast, they do not need to pay rent for temporary housing units. “Many households that are undecided about their next housing are elderly or low-income,” said a municipal government official in charge of the issue. The percentage of single elderly households among temporary housing units in Miyagi Prefecture increased to 22 percent in fiscal 2014 from 16 percent in fiscal 2012.

Limited durability

The major role of temporary housing is to quickly provide evacuees living in gymnasiums and other shelters with housing units. To shorten construction periods, easily available wooden piles are often used for the base part of these housing structures.

According to the Japan Wood Protection Association, cedar and pinewood — materials commonly used for temporary housing — lose durability after five to 6½ years, which can be followed by fears of rotting. Some residents have complained of negative effects on their health caused by mold that grew due to condensation on the floors and walls.

A survey conducted by the Iwate prefectural government in 2014 confirmed that deterioration was present in more than a quarter of about 9,000 makeshift housing units.

The three prefectures are making desperate efforts to prolong the life of the temporary housing units through such measures as installing metal piles. However, such efforts are merely stopgap measures.

Damage from tsunami in the event of a massive earthquake in the Nankai Trough in the Pacific Ocean is also anticipated.

According to Yoshiteru Murosaki, a professor emeritus at Kobe University and an expert on disaster management planning: “It seems to be time to review disaster-related legislation to make it possible to construct semi-permanent temporary housing units that evacuees could move into [from shelters or makeshift units] in cases where reconstruction is expected to be prolonged.”