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After tsunami, elderly couple rebuilds a 'small life'

By Miranda Leitsinger, Senior Writer and Editor, msnbc.com

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In an isolated corner of Kesennuma city, Teruo and Katsuko Kano are slowly reassembling the pieces of the “small life” they shared before the tsunami came roaring up the nearby river and nearly added them to its fearsome death toll.

The 69-year-old Katsuko and her 76-year-old husband have another aim in rebuilding the two-story home in their wrecked and deserted community: saving the last home built by her brother, a carpenter.

"This is the last work of his, so I have to hang onto this house," she said, noting that his home and another one he had built washed away in the tsunami. "For the sake of my brother, I must rebuild." 

Kyle Drubek for msnbc.com

Katsuko and Teruo Kano have cleaned the mud out of the first floor of their home on the outskirts of Kesennuma after it was inundated by the March 11 tsunami. The couple had insurance on their home, but they still face a long wait until they can move in because obtaining supplies is so difficult.

 


The Kanos, who lived in a shelter for a time before moving in with one of their daughters, have traveled to their still uninhabitable home, which is about 1 kilometer (or 0.62 miles) from the sea, every day for the past month. Slowly, they have begun repairing the damage inflicted when the tsunami flooded the first floor to the ceiling.

They’ve used wood and plastic sheeting to cover the shattered windows, but otherwise, the 15-year-old structure built by Katsuko’s brother held up remarkably well. She noted that an architect had told them it was still habitable, and proudly pointed out the solid spruce wood floor that her brother had laid before being diagnosed with cancer and being forced to retire.

The Kanos had earthquake and tsunami insurance, which they believe will cover their expenses to rebuild. They also are expecting to receive government compensation as owners of homes that were partially destroyed by the tsunami -- about $6,500. 

They’re prepared for a long haul – maybe a year or more – before they can move back in, since building materials, especially wood, are in short supply and are largely being used to construct  temporary shelters for the 10,600 people who lost their homes entirely in Kesennuma.

"Because they are short on materials, the pace of the renovation is slow,” Katsuko said, speaking through a translator.

But the Kanos still come each day to do small tasks. On Tuesday, Teruo tossed debris from the yard into a wheelbarrow and carted it off. Katsuko said their sons-in-laws have helped with the biggest jobs so far, but they've not asked for volunteers since she needs to sort through their remaining belongings and decide whether they can be salvaged.

Kyle Drubek / for msnbc.com

Teruo Kano slowly pushes washed up brush and roots through his garden and past cars gathered from the surrounding rice fields.

Some of the objects that did survive are hard to keep because “it reminds me of this horrible disaster," Katsuko said.

But it’s equally hard to dispose of some things, like the four wedding kimonos she brought with her decades ago after she got married.

"They got flooded, messy and muddy. I couldn't throw them away myself, so I left them there (near the house) hoping that somebody would take it, but nobody took it so I threw them away," she said. "I have the memories and the feelings with the kimonos so I couldn't throw them away" at first.

"Everything I brought when I got married is all gone," she added.

The couple was at home when the 9.0-magnitude quake struck. Twenty minutes later, Katsuko heard a roar. Her husband pulled her upstairs, and she said she braced for death when she saw the rising waters bearing down on them.

“I was hoping to live but at the same time I was sort of trying to prepare to die, and then, the tsunami, for some reason started to go that way,” she said pointing to the road in front of her house heading to the north. "That’s why I survived.”

A walk inside the home reveals the scars of the flood: dirt and grass pasted to the walls extend almost to the ceiling and the cloth that once covered part of the home’s traditional sliding doors is shredded.

But it also offers examples of improbable survival: A small religious shrine with a purple flag sits in a nook seemingly untouched near the ceiling, a bookcase that slide into a wall shows little damage, and a table that houses a heater typical in Japanese homes still appears to be solidly set on the floor.

Katsuko said she felt numb after the tsunami, but is finally coming around. She said she feels like wearing makeup again and jokes about the youthful style of the clothing her daughter gave her.

Kyle Drubek / for msnbc.com

Katsuko Kano was embarrased to reveal that she hadn't cleaned out the shoe box yet. Mud and sand still cakes her husband's summer sandals.

But her mood becomes more somber when she ponders whether their community will ever resemble what it was before the disaster.

“Some of my close friends in the neighborhood have died and some people say they don’t want to come back here again,” she said of the Motoyoshi community. “But I’ve been here for 42 years and even though it’s the countryside, it’s inconvenient, but this is where I’ve been and where I belong, and this is where I want to live."

"I want to keep this house so that my grandchildren can live here," added Teruo.

And, Katsuko said, no matter the cost, they intend to return their home to its former glory.

“Me and my husband lived together, just the two of us,” she said. “Every day we cleaned the house and had the friends in the neighborhood, and every day we saw each other and said hello. We were enjoying this small life here and once I thought (when the tsunami was coming), it’s OK if this house is washed away. But now it’s here, it still remains and I’m happy.”