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A hard-hit Japanese city sees signs of hope in road repair, reopened shops

Workers in Ishinomaki, Japan, have cleared thousands of tons of debris from streets and buildings inundated by the March 11 tsunami. A long-time shopkeeper says customers are starting to return.

By Correspondent / April 19, 2011

A car belonging to Japan Self-Defense Force (r.) and another car drive through a sea water-covered road at an area flooded at the time of a high tide due to land sinkage caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, on Tuesday, April 19.

Toru Hanai/Reuters

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Miyagi, Japan

Tens of thousands of tons of concrete, wood, and metal – the remnants of houses, shops, and boats destroyed when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11 – are piled neatly along the sidewalks of Ishinomaki, one of the worst-hit cities when the tsunami hit land.

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The waste is separated into categories for disposal with string, like police tape marking a crime scene, as the region sets about the huge task of recovering from damage unseen in Japan since the end of World War II.

Ishinomaki lost more than 5,500 of its 163,000 citizens; some 2,770 of those are still unaccounted for. The national death toll, meanwhile, is estimated at nearly 14,000, with another some 13,000 still missing. The walls of the city's evacuation centers are still papered with missing posters full of photographs of loved ones and cellphone numbers to call if they are found.

Still, amid all the unmissable signs of destruction, there are the beginning indications of recovery. Workers at Japan's stricken nuclear plant in nearby Fukushima Province began moving tons of highly radioactive water from a reactor building to on-site storage Tuesday. Local flights returned to Sendai late last week. And Ishinomaki has been transformed from the city of flooded streets and hungry citizens that it was just three weeks ago. Shops, even in the districts overwhelmed by water, are reopening, and roads are being repaired. Of the more than 53,000 people who were living in shelters a few weeks ago here, 14,778 remain, and the rest have returned to their homes or are staying with relatives, according to Yoshinori Sato, a city official.

“We have been told that money is coming from the central government to pay for the rebuilding and recovery program," says Mr. Sato. Though how much money will come, or when it will come is still up in the air, he adds.

For now, Ishinomaki will take help from wherever it can get it. The city has received a donation of 100 million yen ($1.2 million) from Maruhan, a Japanese company that runs a chain of pachinko parlors – a pinball-like gambling game that has a distinctly shady image and operates in a legal gray area.

Back in business

Businesses on the old shopping thoroughfare known locally as Manga Street, named for the legendary cartoonist Shotaro Ishinomori, are opening up. The tsunami had lost much of its destructive power by the time it came up the Kitakami River and flowed down Manga Street, drenching buildings but leaving them standing.

“I opened up as soon as the electricity was restored at the beginning of April. Customers are starting to trickle back,” says Jinji Takahashi, while wiping down packets of Japanese tea that his family has been selling in this spot since 1935.

Mr. Takahashi, who remembers the damage from the 8.2 magnitude earthquake centered in nearby Aomori in 1968, says that his insurance doesn’t cover natural disasters and that he doesn’t know if his business will recover this time.

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