Disasterology 6: Signs of commerce return to “The Town That Disappeared”

October 10, 2013

For survivors of Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. Northeast, the Sendai tsunami in Japan and the massive earthquake in Chengdu, China, the scars of disaster are still palpable. I’m part of a group of journalists brought together by the East-West Center in Hawaii to see how the people and environments hit by these catastrophes are faring, one year,  two years and five years later. We began our tour on Sept. 29. Here are the other posts in the series:

As shopping centers go, the Minamisanriku Sun Sun Shopping Village is minor: a fish monger, a beauty parlor, a vegetable stand and a florist, along with a few other stores. The people who run the shops live elsewhere since their homes were destroyed by the 2011 tsunami, and the areas that flooded are still not considered safe for residents to return.

Business is not exactly brisk on a lovely October morning, but the fact that there is business at all is significant. Minamisanriku has become known as “The Town That Disappeared” after the March 3 tsunami swallowed the broad valley where schools, homes, offices and the city’s disaster mitigation building were located.

The fishery, basis of one of the town’s main businesses (the other was tourism) was destroyed, said Shinya Chiba, an official with the local fisheries association. The fish were never contaminated, but of the 1,100 fishing boats that went out before the disaster, only 70 came back. Of those, only 20 were suitable for fish farming in Shizagawa Bay.

“I myself was a victim after the disaster,” Chiba told a group of international journalists, speaking through a translator. “There was no place to live, no food to eat. We couldn’t make any plans for our lives, for our future.”

Morale was terrible for fishermen and their families in cramped temporary housing, with no immediate way to work or return home. At first, they helped clean debris, but that was a temporary job. In the first year after the flood, they cultivated seaweed. This is a popular crop in Japan, and useful for fisheries because a seaweed crop planted in November can be harvested in May. Oysters by contrast can take two to three years to reach maturity.

Now, the fishing fleet is about 80 percent of what it was before the tsunami.

While no one lives in the flood-damaged areas of the town, workers and fishermen are there, building a breakwater to protect the harbor and checking on the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of floats that dot the wide bay. Each float is a sign that oysters are growing below.

Manabu Sugawara was out on a recent afternoon checking the oysters’ growth. One float he pulled up was covered by mussels and local small clams, which feed on the same nutrients as oysters. Sugawara knocked off the surface mussels and clams to reveal fist-sized oysters. When he cracked them open, the flesh inside was briny and definitely edible.

The tsunami’s huge power may have cleaned out the bay, making it a better place for oysters to grow, Sugawara said. Fishing was one of the chief industries in Minamisanriku before the flood. Local fisheries officials say it has 80 percent recovered.


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