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To survive, tsunami-hit community may flee the sea

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Rice farmer Katsushi Haga sees just one thing as he stands atop a hill on Japan’s northeast coast, flanked by spindly trees, tall grasses and a well-tended vegetable patch: a future for the tsunami-devastated community of Koizumi.

Haga is one of the leaders of a drive to move the historic, tight-knit seaside community of mostly rice farmers and fishermen to the top of this hill, which is about a mile inland and nearly 214 feet above sea level than its present location.

Given the devastation that the March 11 tsunami visited on Koizumi, he is not bothered by the lack of a sea view. In fact, he considers it a plus.

Rice farmer Katsushi Haga talks about why he wants to move the community of Koizumi into the hills and away from the sea.

“I don’t want to see the ocean,” he said. “If I see the ocean, it reminds me of the tsunami.”


The tsunami flattened Koizumi, a district of Kesennuma city, destroying 266 of its 518 households and damaging or flooding 42 more -- affecting 60 percent of the community's households. It also killed about 30 of its estimated 1,800 residents, including Haga’s 87-year-old mother, and left survivors in a shelter in a local school or living with relatives. That led to them to contemplate something that would have been unthinkable three months ago.

Shortly after the disaster, Haga, a member of the district committee, and others in the evacuation center saw a news report about another community that wanted to stay together after the tsunami and was trying to relocate. That gave them the idea that the people of Koizumi could do the same.

“Some of these families have been here for years, in some cases a few hundred years,” he said. “We have had our own customs and relationships, and I was afraid to lose them all. If we move together, we can get back to our normal life as it was before.”

The committee set out to identify a plot of land and soon settled on a 5-plus-hectare plot (about 12 ½ acres) on the hill, which is owned by a fellow committee member. Next, they’re hoping to get the Kesennuma city office to approve their plan and help negotiate a price. If they can get more than 10 of the remaining residents to agree to the move, the federal government would cover 75 percent of the cost rebuilding – not the homes but the infrastructure – while the city would pay the other 25 percent.  Koizumi also would need to get permission from Kesennuma to develop the hill.

Haga stressed that the proposal is in the early stages, but added that advocates of the move already have held 15 meetings since late April, had an engineering professor look at their proposed site and gotten advice from a think tank. Next, they are planning a town-hall style meeting to talk with fellow residents about their plan.

Haga said the hilltop would have to be flattened so that homes could be built, and estimates that it would take three to four years to complete the new Koizumi. But the site has some advantages: It gets lots of sunlight, doesn’t have a steep slope, is already accessible by road, is close to the former Koizumi and, most important, would be safe from all but the most horrific tsunami, Haga said.

“I want to make this new area look like the original place. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely the same. It has to be better than the original community,” he said, speaking through a translator.

Koizumi’s leaders think it will work, Haga said, since moving of entire towns has happened before after natural disaster. But Koizumi also is facing competition for city dollars, as one other district in Kesennuma already has applied to relocate, while Koizumi and one other appear to be close to doing the same.  

It’s easy to understand the desire to begin anew elsewhere. A view of the former town from an overlook reveals a scene of unbelievable destruction: a major overpass with a 200-foot chunk ripped out, a massive vault torn from a bank, and countless wrecked cars and houses. All told, more than 10,600 homes were destroyed in Kesennuma.

Haga speaks of “kizuna,” a Japanese word to evoke strong emotional ties and bonds, when talking about Koizumi, where he has lived all of his life.

“Most of the people around here are either farmers or fishermen, mainly farmers,” he said. “Being in those industries means that you have to help people and accept help from others. We’re always helping each other. That’s part of being in a community. Everything revolves around the fact that we help each other.

“Living in the city you wouldn’t even know who was living next door, but here, it’s completely the opposite, everybody knows everybody.”

The disaster forced the people of Koizumi to either move elsewhere or live in an evacuation center set up in a school gym. Some have since moved into temporary trailer homes next door, but there is not enough room for everyone.

About 80 people remain in the gym – down from a peak of 530. Among them is a 62-year-old woman who only gave her last name, Iwabuki. She said the life there was hard and she could only shower once a week.

Iwabuki could get housing further away, but that would mean a long journey for her grandson to school. She supports the committee’s plan to move Koizumi.

“I want the original Koizumi town, too, and I want everybody to be together,” said Iwabuki, who was sitting amid stacked boxes and chatting with a friend as “enka” – a traditional form of Japanese music – played softly over gym’s loudspeakers.

Haga said some 60 percent of the townspeople support the move while another 40 percent were undecided or possibly opposed, though no one has spoken out against it. But not everyone will be able to live on the hillside, since there is not enough space. It’s also unclear how much of the nearby land will be available for marking, since Haga is expecting that other Kesennuma residents also will want to move uphill.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

75-year-old landowner Keiichi Oikawa tills the soil of his vegetable plot outside Koizumi, Japan on Wednesday. Oikawa wants to sell some of his hillside land so the community of Koizumi can rebuild out of a tsunami's reach.

Keiichi Oikawa, the 75-year-old landowner and a member of the Koizumi town committee, rode his orange tractor over his hillside land, tilling the soil as dusk approached late Tuesday. Birds whistled, a breeze rustled the trees and pine needles and branches lay strewn across a dirt path ringing the vegetable plot that he bought six years ago. He said he wouldn’t give the land away, but he promised a reasonable price, since so many of his friends in neighbors in the shelter “have nowhere to go.”

Oikawa, whom Haga laughingly referred to as his drinking buddy, also was born and raised in Koizumi.

“I want to help the Koizumi people and also if people are spread out and go far away, the schools won’t be able to operate either and then there will be no town,” Oikawa said. “I don’t want that to happen. That’s why I want everybody, whether they have land or not, to move here and live together in one community. It’s not that this is the best place, but it’s important that everybody lives together.”

Back on the hilltop, Haga contemplated the possibility of a life here. When asked what he wanted to bring most from the old Koizumi to the new one, his answer was simple.

“I want the people,” he said. “I want all the people to be together and live together, because we’ve been together a long time.”