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Radiation Evacuees Left in Dark About Life After Shelters

At my age, radiation doesnt worry me one bit, said Katsumitsu Shibata, a 79-year-old retired electric wiring engineer whose house survived the earthquake and tsunami. Photographer: Makiko Kitamura/Bloomberg
At my age, radiation doesnt worry me one bit, said Katsumitsu Shibata, a 79-year-old retired electric wiring engineer whose house survived the earthquake and tsunami. Photographer: Makiko Kitamura/Bloomberg

When nuclear reactors damaged by Japan’s earthquake and tsunami last month sent radiation levels surging near his home 16 miles away, Nobuaki Fujioka and his wife took a seven-hour bus ride to an evacuation center. After two weeks of sleeping on a gymnasium floor next to 236 others, he still has no idea when or if he can return.

“Going home is all I think about,” Fujioka, 65, said, resting on a futon in Nagaoka city’s Nanbu Gymnasium, in neighboring Niigata prefecture. “We are left completely in the dark about the future.”

Fujioka, who is from Minamisoma city, is one of about 9,000 evacuees from Fukushima prefecture living in 84 shelters in Niigata and part of the 159,828 who remain homeless across Japan following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11. While Prime Minister Naoto Kan has promised to submit a spending package this month to parliament to pay for reconstruction, few details on the ground are deepening a sense of uncertainty and hampering local planning efforts.

“More information is needed for decision-making,” Haruo Kawakami, head of Nagaoka’s risk and disaster management division, said in an interview. Without more guidance from Fukushima or the central government, the city can’t go ahead with long-term plans such as building temporary housing, he said, prolonging the time families live on floors and rely on volunteer assistance.

Destroyed Homes

Almost 55,000 homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair by the disaster, according to the National Police Agency, and 27,688 are dead or missing as of 10 a.m. today. So far the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportation has requested the construction of 30,000 temporary homes by the end of May.

Under existing law, victims whose homes are destroyed by natural disasters are entitled to 1 million yen ($11,886) for damages and another 2 million yen for rebuilding. Half the payments are issued by the central government with the rest coming from the prefectures.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said today Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, is considering providing compensation for those forced from their homes.

“Regardless of the total amount of compensation, evacuees are very much in need of immediate financial relief,” Edano said. “At this moment, plans haven’t been finalized.”

The government has also set up a special team to assist residents near the reactor and intends to remove contamination and monitor the environment.

Contamination Level

Radiation in the air above contaminated seawater near the Dai-Ichi plant has been measured at more than 1,000 millisieverts an hour, Tepco said April 2. Exposure to that level for an hour would trigger nausea, and four hours might lead to death within two months, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“At my age, radiation doesn’t worry me one bit,” said Katsumitsu Shibata, a 79-year-old retired electric wiring engineer whose house survived the earthquake and tsunami. He said he only agreed to leave Minamisoma because stores ran out of food. With two small bags and a backpack, he boarded one of eight buses organized by the city that left at 10:30 a.m. on March 19, arriving in Nagaoka seven hours later, Shibata said.

While the shelter offers ginger-infused foot baths and trips to a local hot springs to soothe occupants, some say they hunger most for information. Only 40 copies of the Fukushima Minpo and Fukushima Minyu newspapers are delivered to the shelter each day at the Nanbu Gymnasium, and they are often hoarded, said Michio Sanpei.

‘Completely Disappeared’

“Our mayor instructed us to evacuate, but since then, he’s completely disappeared,” Sanpei, 65, complained next to his wife Michiko, adding that no one knows how long their stay will be. “I don’t care what the message is. Some kind of message should be sent our way.”

As the start of the new school year approaches, Yurie Abe said she’s enrolled her 16-year-old daughter in the local Nagaoka Koryou High School.

“I have no idea when our school in Fukushima will re-open,” Abe said. Given the commute time, she and her daughter will move later this week to an apartment closer to the school, provided by the city for free, she said.

Niigata itself received assistance from other prefectures after a 6.6-magnitude earthquake in October 2004 killed more than 40 people and destroyed 6,000 buildings.

“We are definitely happy to give back,” Kawakami, of Nagaoka city hall said. “We just need more direction.”

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