Taro, Tsunami fears haunt residents of recovering Iwate town

Kyodo

A “disaster-prevention tour guide” led dozens of people earlier this month along a 10-meter-high seawall overlooking the Taro district in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, where monster tsunami wreaked havoc in March 2011.

“This seawall was built not to prevent the tsunami, but to give people more time to escape,” Junko Sasaki, 53, said.

The district made a fresh start on Nov. 22 by holding a “town opening” ceremony after erecting about 450 new dwellings.

But with Taro’s population down to about 70 percent since the quake and tsunami, and its new seawall delayed, residents are worried about the struggles they will face during the years-long recovery process.

The area, which has a narrow cove facing the ocean, was also hit by tsunami in 1896 and 1933 that claimed 2,700 lives.

History made them wise enough to realize survival means fleeing to higher ground, despite the area’s famous double seawall, which was dubbed “Banri no Chojo” (“Long Castle of 100,000 Miles”), Japan’s name for the Great Wall of China.

But they may have let their guard down on March 11, 2011, when the deadly waves swept over the seawall and flooded the area, leaving 181 people dead or missing, and nearly 1,700 dwellings damaged or destroyed.

“Even if there is (sufficient) infrastructure, at the end of the day you must protect your own life. You need to remember that you have to evacuate,” Sasaki warned.

In the more than four years since, Miyako has built about 450 new dwellings both on higher ground 40 to 60 meters above sea level and on ground raised by about 2 meters.

Aiko Akanuma, 74, who had lived in the center of the city, moved into a public dwelling on higher ground earlier this month, giving up land she had lived on for 50 years.

When the tsunami hit, Akanuma ran from her home to a nearby public facility. She might not be so lucky next time, she said.

“If another one hits, I don’t think I will be able to escape,” she said, citing her bad legs.

Others, like photo shop owner Shigeo Tsuda, 75, are returning to the city center even though it’s on low ground.

“I came this far with help from people from across the nation,” said Tsuda, who reopened his store on a street just inside the seawall. Yet he worries.

The reason he decided to reopen in the same spot was because he was told a new seawall would be in place by next March. But due to other reconstruction projects, the 14.7-meter-high seawall was delayed. It is now expected to be finished by the end of March 2017.

“If there is another tsunami, the town will be destroyed again,” he said. “It’s really scary.”

The city says Taro had a population of 3,173 as of Nov. 1, down from more than 4,400 before the tsunami. It plans to build 220 dwellings at its center but has only received requests for 20 to 30, including shops.

Tsuda is thinking about rebuilding his house, but plans to stay in public housing for now. He decided to reopen his photo shop, the only one in Taro, out of a sense of mission.

“But I can’t sleep well at night, as I’m worried about whether I can really make a living,” he said.

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