Three Months After the Twin Tragedies Hit Japan

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I am Marco Werman, this is "The World". Things won't be normal in Japan for quite a long time. Not while the death toll from the March 11th earthquake and tsunami is still not final, but is thought to be 20.00 or more. And not when more than 90.000 Japanese are still living in evacuation centers and shelters. Malka Older has been doing relief work in Japan for much of the past three months. She's with the international aid group Mercy Corps and she says the Japanese effort to get this place's people into more permanent housing is going as quickly as possible.

Malka Older: The response effort in turns of moving people out of the evacuation centers has been moving incredibly fast, and the government has some experience with this â�" Japan has always been a country that's been very interested and very committed in preparing for the disasters knowing that they have quite a lot of them to deal with. And so they had the drill down on emergency shelters after the Hunchin earthquake in Kobe.

Werman: And the Kobe earthquake was in 1995?

Older: Yes, that's right. So the good news is that people are moving out of high schools, they are moving out of the other shelters that have been set up and they're getting into these houses. The bad news is that you've still got an economy that's devastated and I know that there's been a lot of talking about this sort of macro level of the economy and what it's doing to Toyota, what it's doing to the other big industries, but we're also talking about towns that have just lost every single business, every single shop, every place of employment that they had.

Werman: Right. I mean, I wanted to ask you about the economy and one of the shelters that I was in was a convention center in the city of Koriyama and it meant that people had a great place to stay until they moved in temporary homes, but it also meant that no conventions were happening for many months. So, just how bad has North-East Japan been devastated economically?

Older: Extremely badly. This area was, for example, they produced 80% of the wakame seaweed that is consumed in Japan, that's a huge part of their cuisine; they produce oysters, scallops, they fish deep-sea and coastal and when you go along the coast there you just see the incredible infrastructure that they had and it's all gone.

Werman: All wiped up by the tsunamiââ?¬ ¦

Older: Just devastated.

Werman: So, this was a question that I had while I was there that I wasn't really able to answer: What happens now to these areas? Are they pretty much wiped out permanently? Where do the people go?

Older: It's a real wrench on people to have to leave their areas. These are rural areas, they are very traditional and so there are a lot of people who are determined to find a way to re-build the towns, who are looking at ways to design so they can have the fishing industries at some degree of closeness to the coast, where they need to be, but also have evacuation measures in place to make sure that the residences and the other places of business are a little bit farther away, a little bit higher up. Obviously, nobody wants to see a repeat of this kind of destruction.

Werman: Let me ask you a personal question Malka, you lived in Japan ten years ago teaching English there: Descrbe what it was like to go back to a Japan thatââ?¬ ¦I suspect you recognized Tokyo, but then you get to the North and I imagine it's clear for you something very big has changed there.

Older: It was an incredible shock and particularly in a country that is so organized, it's a place where you have the infrastructure, you have everything you need anywhere in the country, as rural as it is, and so going there from Tokyo to this area and going through all these beautiful small towns that looked very much like the small town where I lived, and knowing that as we got closer and closer to the coast we're going to see a town that had been just like this and was completely destroyed. And so, to arrive in a place and find that it had beenââ?¬ ¦ Really, there's nothing left except just the shadows of things that you can see where they were. You know, we were driving around and Japanââ?¬ ¦ almost all the cars there have incredible GPS systems. So, we're driving around these roads that we can really barely see where the road is, and the GPS system is telling us "At the next corner you'll see a convenient store. At the corner up ahead you want to turn right, next to the hotel." And there's nothing there. There are these virtual ghosts of what the town used to be.

Werman: Yeah. Malka Older is with the international aid organization Mercy Corps. She's been leading the group's aid efforts in Japan since the March 11th earthquake and tsunami. Thanks very much for coming in.

Older: Thank you.