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Leaving shelters lands some tsunami survivors in deep trouble

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This isn’t how Michio and Ryoko Konno envisioned spending their golden years. 

The Konnos are picking up tsunami debris five days a week near their demolished home in Minamisanriku, earning about $100 apiece for a day’s work. 

Kyle Drubek for msnbc.com

Ryoko Konno, left, and her husband, Michio, are earning about $100 a day collecting tsunami debris and barely making ends meet.

Michio Konno, 63, was working as a maritime engineer and Ryoko, 58, was staying home and minding two grandchildren when the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11, destroying most of the town’s homes and businesses. They ended up in an emergency shelter, but left after a short stay to move in with a relative. Later, they moved into an apartment in another town. 

Now they are caught in a Catch-22 faced by many tsunami survivors along Japan’s northeastern coast. Leaving emergency shelters for temporary housing means cutting the financial lifeline provided by the government, including meals, utilities and access to other resources and services provided through the shelters to help them through these difficult days. Typically, it also means buying new furniture and appliances to replace those lost to the waves. 

“It’s impossible to live on what we are making here right now. We can only just barely pay our rent,” Ryoko Konno said on a tea break from her cleanup duties late Wednesday. “If we were in an evacuation center, it would be free – electricity, food -- everything supplied. … Once you leave (the shelter), you’re out. We would have liked to have stayed, but we couldn’t.” 


 The government has tried to help homeowners get back on their feet, giving those who lost their home about $24,000 in disaster aid and $6,500 to those whose homes were damaged. But with the fishing- and tourism-dependent economies in the coastal cities and towns in paralysis, finding work – apart from low-paying jobs picking tsunami debris -- is nearly impossible. 

That has created a difficult situation, as the government rushes to build temporary housing -- mostly prefabricated units or mobile homes – to enable people to move out of the crowded shelters, only to find that some aren’t ready to go, fearing they will be unable to make it on their own. 

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Rows of recently built temporary housing units sit on what used to be the baseball diamond at Shizugawa High School in Minamisanriku, Japan.

Yukari Sato, a 45-year-old florist who lost her shop and home and is living in a shelter while working picking up debris, said money is “probably the most important problem” she and her neighbors face. “I think it’s tough for everyone.” 

In Minamisanriku, which lost about 3,300 homes, or 60 percent of its housing stock, 1,224 temporary housing units have been built since the disaster, but just over half – 690 – are occupied. On Sunday, a lottery will be held for another 264 of the units, 123 of which already had been offered to people who turned them down. 

Officials of the town are sympathetic to the survivors’ plight, but they say that getting them out of the shelters is crucial if Minamisanriku is to surive. 

“Otherwise, the town won’t be able to exist as a town,” said Yoshifumu Goto, 37, an employee in the town’s health and welfare division. “It can’t survive if we keep providing necessities or food that is sold in the regular shops. How would those shop owners make a living? At first, of course, we were very thankful for all of the supplies but now as we go into the next stage, the reconstruction stage, there are some cases in which those supplies prevent the town from recovering. The most important capital for the town is people.” 

Some shelter dwellers have tried to hedge their bets when they won the lottery for temporary housing, which gives priority to pregnant women, families with children under 3 and the elderly.  Town officials said some winners of a recent lottery had only moved their belongings over, while others had not even visited, the Mainichi Daily reported on June 6. 

“The reality is … the people in the shelter, they are provided three meals and the necessities, while those in the temporary houses are not. That’s the reality,” said Akira Saijo, head of the town’s construction division. “There is no measure to ease this situation. I believe there are people who can’t move into temporary houses because of this issue.” 

Saijo said the town held a community meeting on June 5 to discuss the situation and imposed a new rule requiring lottery winners to move into their temporary housing within a week, or return the key. Occupancy increased afterward, the Kahoku Online Network reported.  

Saijo and Goto said it was the prefecture’s decision not to extend aid to residents in temporary housing. 

“The temporary houses, moving into them, is not a solution at all. People have lost houses, income, family and jobs, so even moving into the temporary houses doesn’t mean they can live independently,” Saijo said, adding that he wished it was possible to at least provide food to those in temporary housing. 

Some locals in Minamisanriku are finding ways to get around the cutoff. 

“Everyone is very nice and they give me food to take home and we all share things,” Ryoko Konno said of her team of debris collectors. “Everyone shares their energy with me and I can get lots of information, for instance, there is something happening today or there are supplies arriving … There’s no supplies where we are and there’s no one to bring them to us, but if we come here they all know that we’ve had to evacuate and they’ll help us out with foodstuffs and whatever we need.” 

Nobuko Chiba, 65, who is living in temporary housing with her husband, Masayoshi, and two adult daughters, said her family is barely making ends meet. And as she tries to stretch her paycheck for picking up debris, her disabled husband’s pension and earthquake insurance payout of $41,300 on their home, which only covered about 30 percent of its value, to cover their monthly expenses, she fears for the future. 

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Returning home from her job of picking up tsunami debris, Nobuko Chiba, 65, walks between rows of government-built temporary housing outside Shizugawa High school in Minamisanriku, Japan, on Thursday.

“You can only stay two years in temporary housing so we’re going to have to be self-sufficient at the end of that,” said Chiba, who fled her home of 35 years as the tsunami engulfed it. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to rebuild on the same plot that we had before and if that happens then we’ll have to buy another plot of land and build a house. I don’t think that will be possible.”

“I was happy to be alive after the tsunami, but now, looking back, sometimes I wonder what was better.”

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Masayoshi Chiba, 67, sits in the living room of the 320 square foot temporary housing he shares with his wife, Nobuko, and two daughters in Minamisanriku, Japan, on Thursday. Masayoshi is on disability pension while his 65-year-old wife, Nobuko, works during the day picking up tsunami debris.

Many townspeople are hoping that a draft plan for the rebuilding of Minamisanriku, expected to be presented in September, will answer some of their questions. But that is a long wait for people living on the edge of survival. 

“There’s nothing we can do now but live day to day,” said Chiba, “and hope we get some glimpse of our future.”