Half a year after disaster

September 12, 2011

By Kim Kyung-hoon

“Time flies so fast.”

I can’t count how many times I’ve mumbled this phrase while traveling in Sendai and Fukushima last week for the six month anniversary of the March 11th earthquake and disaster that left tens of thousands dead across Japan and caused the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.

With the scenes of fear and hopelessness from the areas devastated in March and the hardship of the assignments still vivid in my memory, I feel like the disaster happened just a few weeks ago.

Six months had passed when I hit the road again with my TV colleague Chris Meyers, who traveled to the area with me in March, in order to document how much the tsunami-hit areas have recovered. As I once again traveled around the northern part of Japan, some areas have recovered at a pace I didn’t think possible in March.

Half a year after the disaster from Kim Kyung-Hoon on Vimeo.

For this trip, we drove north from Tokyo to Sendai using the highway system, taking a total of five hours. In March, the same trip took over 25 hours, and involved using a helicopter to fly north to Fukushima. From there we drove using small local roads as many of the major highways had entire chunks of the road missing due to the earthquake.

The port of Sendai, where I documented the disaster’s damage for the first time in March, is once again operating normally. The lines in downtown Sendai to find food, water, and gas have disappeared.
Certainly, those who lost loved ones and property are still suffering. but the damage to property has been tidied up in hopes of providing a guide to those affected to help them manage their sorrow and hardship.

In Fukushima, home to the worst nuclear crisis in last 25 years, the atmosphere was quite different from other tsunami-hit areas in the northern part of Japan. What I perceived in Fukushima was fear, uncertainty and distrust toward the government.

Again, we visited Minamisoma, on the edge of the mandatory nuclear evacuation zone, where it faces the risk of becoming a ghost town as tens of thousands flee fearing nuclear radiation. On the border of the 20 kilometer (12 mile) no-go zone around the radiation-leaking Fukushima Daiichi power plant, extraordinary scenery becomes normal.

Police stand guard while wearing masks with radiation dosimeters around their necks to block anyone from entering the zone. At a rest stop a few meters away, the white radiation suits of workers hang to dry after their work inside the zone. Alongside the road, sunflowers which are believed to absorb nuclear radiation were newly planted to help reduce the invisible threat of contamination.

In the 20-30 kilometers zone people were ordered to stay indoors and to be ready to evacuate at any moment, many shops were closed as the city fell into a lethargic silence.

Slightly north of the roadblocks, students wear masks during class because of internal radiation exposure concerns at a packed temporary school which was set up inside another school’s gymnasium. The original school was evacuated as it was inside the evacuation zone. After school, teachers checked the radiation levels in the classroom.

Nuclear radiation concerns have led to nearly half of the 70,000 residents of Minamisoma leaving the city. The evacuation center set up in another school in the city still houses evacuees from the nuclear zone, mainly those powerless to move away or into temporary housing.

We interviewed Tomoyoshi Oikawa, assistant director of the city’s municipal hospital, who represented the Fukushima people’s distrust about the government. He compared the city to a battlefield and said their enemy is nuclear radiation.

He said that people are tired of the government flip-flopping on radiation safety policy and that all anyone wants is a simple and clear plan that doesn’t change for more than a month. He added however the government itself doesn’t seem to know how to cope with the disaster.

At the moment no one knows who will win the battle and how long this war will go on.

All I can hope for is a little progress in the city when I visit here again in six months for the one year anniversary of the disaster.

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While I am in awe of the Japanese ability to clean up the Tsunami zone in record time, my heart breaks for my friends in Fukushima. Thank you for such beautiful photos and for sharing an important reminder that the disaster continues.

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