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One year after Japan tsunami: Roads repaired, but lives still disrupted

One year after the Japan tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster, many roads are rebuilt and debris is cleaned up. But much remains in flux for residents of the hard-hit northeast coastal zone. 

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The company has so far resisted property compensation, saying it is not yet clear if some homes might be usable in the future, and that assessors cannot reach the empty houses in contaminated areas to value them. TEPCO is, however, paying the salaries of all those who lost their jobs to radiation, though how long that will last "has not been decided yet," says spokeswoman Mayumi Yoshida.

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"We can't move now because neither the government nor TEPCO has said clearly where we can go or what plans they have for us," Nishihara says. But financial questions are not the only issue. "I can't think about moving at the moment because I'm still stuck on March 11," she says, almost apologetically.

When the earthquake hit at 2:46 p.m., Nishihara was caring for elderly patients in a day-care center. She stayed with them and helped move them to a shelter; they survived. But she feels guilty that she could not return all of them to their families, as she normally would have done. "I didn't finish my job," she says. "Psychologically I'm still in a kind of limbo. My husband and I had a plan [for] what we'd do with our lives when I retired, but those plans changed in an instant, and now I just can't make up my mind about things."

Taeko Ouchi, Takako Ouchi's daughter-in-law, is finding it difficult to make plans, too, as she tries to cope with her two boys, 6-year-old Kazuhito and 4-year-old Yuto, in a dilapidated public housing apartment in Iwaki that had been slated for demolition before the earthquake. "Please just tell us ... if we are not going to be able to live in Okuma again so we can focus on making a new life," she pleads. "For now, we are in between."

Government response

Government experts are still reviewing radiation levels in the exclusion zone. The Okuma village council is hoping some residents may be able to return. But Taeko's husband, Masaru, says he will not go back to the house he finished building 18 months before the quake.

He still has his old job as an electrician at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, now helping to shut it down. "Every day I go back to Okuma, and I have to wear coveralls from head to toe and a respirator," he says. "How am I going to take my children to live in a place like that?"

The government will pay his rent for another year, he has been assured. He does not know what he will do after that.

The Okuma council would like to house as many former residents as possible in one place. Officials are seeking land outside the exclusion zone. "Villagers are asking us when and where we are going to settle them, but we cannot give them a specific answer yet," says Hisashi Suzuki, head of the council's planning section. "It will be at least three to five years before we've built everything we need."

That's the sort of timeline that officials in the port of Ishinomaki, 115 miles up the coast, are also thinking of as they seek to rehouse the 17,000 people living in prefab housing.

The city government has banned new construction near the seashore, and most of the buildable land in town is already full of temporary housing. Planning chief Hiroshi Goto says he has identified two districts on the outskirts and has been negotiating with more than 300 landowners to buy their plots. "It has been very hard agreeing on a price," he says.

But until he has secured the land and created an urban plan, he cannot apply for government funding, he says. Then it could take years to build. "Maybe people could move in around 2017 or 2019," Mr. Goto predicts.

Back in Koriyama, Takako Ouchi lights a joss stick in memory of her mother and her former life, and sighs. "I'm not sure I have the courage to face a new world," she says. "I feel like a caged bird."

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