Escaping the ruins, with no destination in sight

Japans calamity

Escaping the ruins, with no destination in sight

Nowhere to go: A mother and her children sit in the parking lot of a supermarket in Higashimatsushima in Miyagi prefecture on Monday. AFPNow long-distance buses have begun running again from some cities—Koriyama, Fukushima and Sendai—and the bus terminals are overflowing with people trying to get away.

But a few buses going south to Tokyo have already been booked for weeks. Those going elsewhere outside the region have queues stretching around city blocks, and the vast majority wait without success.

This leaves just the buses shuttling between disaster areas, going from nuclear peril to quake epicentre.

“I don’t even know where to evacuate to,” says a woman boarding a bus. “Or what from: the earthquake, tsunami or nuclear reactors.”

Her house is 40 km from the Fukushima nuclear power plant spewing radioactive particles into the air. Officially, she is considered safe because only residents within a 20-km radius have to evacuate.

But the woman has made the call to get away. She doesn’t want to become a forced refugee needing help from agencies.

Her destination is simply “away”. She gets off the bus in Sendai, beyond the nuclear threat but just kilometres from shores devastated by the tsunami.

She says she hopes to find a seat on another bus to keep taking her further.

Many are stuck in Sendai, and every morning they form long queues at bus terminals to try to get a seat out of the region.

Waiting overnight is not an option; temperatures drop below freezing point at night.
Some have found accommodation, while others stay at evacuation shelters. Many do not have access to washing facilities. A television broadcast in the evening lists bathhouses that remain open despite disruptions to power, water and gas supplies. But they can only serve a limited number of people, usually just a few dozen a day.

Most hotels are damaged or unable to open due to supply shortages. A rare hotel that has managed to stay open says it can only book rooms for up to three nights in a row.
A man leaving after three nights said he was on his way back to Fukushima, the centre of the nuclear threat, where he originally evacuated from.

Back to Fukushima

“I’m evacuating from my evacuation,” he said, trying to be light-hearted. “I’ll see if I have other options—but I’ll probably be back.”

Shutters were closed and lights out across northeast Japan’s largest city on Saturday and Sunday night despite a long weekend, its residents continuing to reel in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Sendai is the city closest to the epicentre of the earthquake that wreaked havoc on Japan. It is just kilometres from the coast wiped out by the subsequent tsunami.

Most storefronts are plastered with signs bearing a variation of, “Sorry, we’re closed due to the earthquake. We cannot foresee when we can reopen.” Entire blocks are shut down.

A normally-24-hour convenience store opened on Sunday for two hours for cigarettes and various food items, with every customer limited to 10 purchases each. It was immediately swamped as long lines formed. After a long wait, many young people walked out with bags of instant noodles. They were still in the process of stocking up, for “just in case”, they said.

The next most common items were crackers and big boxes of chocolate puff pies. If instant noodles could make meals, these were just comfort. “For now I just want things in my house,” said a woman who spent her quota on the pies.

Other people bought a few cans of beer, running shoes and one older woman some ice cream. “It calms me down while watching television,” the elderly woman said. “I get nervous.”

By 5 pm, everything closes. The streets near the central station become crowded for some time as people find their ways home, mostly waiting for local buses reduced to one an hour. Each person carries several plastic bags. There are many people dragging suitcases—they are the out-of-towners looking for a place to stay or are just passing through. As it gets dark, it becomes apparent that the city will have no weekend nightlife.
A young woman walking home spoke about how she had been confused by many things since the earthquake. “I didn’t even know the difference between propane and LPG. I never took notice of which my house used,” she said. She was not sure what she needed; she just knew there wasn’t enough of it.

Strangely, some hairdressers stay open. They offer shampoos and maybe a haircut.
Monday is a holiday to mark the spring equinox, the passing of the seasons. Symbolically, it could be meaningful, even nice; it could signal a time for regrowth. But the lines extending out of the few open shops show the city is still burrowing deeper into resignation, not sure how to move forward.

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