By Yuki Matsuoka
KOBE, 11 March 2013 - Almost two years after the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake, UNISDR Chief Margareta Wahlström paid a return visit to one of the worst-affected towns, Minami-Sanriku, in Miyagi Prefecture, and met with the Mayor, Mr. Jin Sato.
Minami-Sanriku was hard hit by the March 11 tsunami. The town lost 566 of its 17,300 inhabitants, and 226 are still unaccounted for. The damage was immense, 3,142 houses were completely washed away and another 169 severely damaged and left uninhabitable.
Ms. Wahlström's first visit to the town was six months after the earthquake, on 10 September 2011. During this latest visit Ms. Wahlström met with the local people and government officials of Minami-Sanriku town. She also revisited Shizagawa Junior High School and Matsubara Park.
Shizagawa Junior High School was untouched by the tsunami as it is located on higher ground. The school served as an evacuation centre after the tsunami and is a good vantage point for surveying the town. The school overlooks what once was a residential area that has now been flattened and cleared all the way to the coastline. The UNISDR Chief noted that a number of buildings which remained along the coast on her first visit had since been torn down as they were deemed unsafe.
Matsubara Park functioned as a debris repository after the earthquake and was overwhelmingly full when Ms. Wahlström first visited. Since then, the debris has been moved to a debris processing site as part of an extensive debris management plan.
She met with Mayor Jin Sato, who urged that the recovery process, based on the adopted ten-year recovery plan for Minami-Sanriku and resourced by the National Government, be accelerated and become more visible throughout this year.
Ms. Wahlström also visited the temporary shopping village of Minami-Sanriku which provides a central location for small business owners who lost their shops in the earthquake and tsunami, allowing them to trade for three years rent-free as a part of the ten year recovery plan. After chatting to some of the staff, she remarked, "these shops seem to provide a start for re-building their lives back and give them strength to live through this challenging time."
The ten year recovery plan includes a huge relocation project to move the residential area of Minami-Sanriku from the valley to the highlands, which required broad consultation with the community. The coastal areas will be used for parks and industrial establishments, while the residential and public service areas will be relocated to areas above the height of the tsunami experienced on 11 March 2011, however, rezoning and leveling of the residential areas will take quite some time due to the gradient of the land.
Mr. Jin Sato requested Ms. Wahlström to visit the town again in a couple of years and to monitor how the town is going through this long recovery process and tackling the on-going challenges. She promised to come back again and to share her experience with the international community.