Tsunami victims still waiting for new homes

A brawl between two men has just been broken up and arguments are reaching fever pitch when Mr Fumio Miura steps up to the microphone.

Addressing the 150-strong crowd, comprising many of his former neighbours and a panel of Ishinomaki city officials, the 58-year-old says: "We are all sufferers here. We've lost everything and now the city wants to take our land?"

Mr Miura, a resident of Ishinomaki's Mitsumata district - one of the areas worst-hit by the 2011 tsunami - was speaking at a town hall meeting where city officials unveiled reconstruction plans. Housing is a hot potato at such meetings, and arguments sometimes escalate into fisticuffs.

The source of the anger and impatience is the delay in rebuilding that has left many still homeless two years after the disaster. Many projects like that in Mitsumata district are still only in the planning stages, and the unhappiness here is that the plans may cause residents to lose up to 7 per cent of their land without any compensation.

There were about 300 homes in the district before the disaster. Now only a handful stand among vacant lots less than 2km from the coast.

Most of the 800 residents are still in temporary housing complexes in Ishinomaki, where living conditions are cramped and stressful. Some, like Mr Miura, could not stand the conditions and have rebuilt their houses themselves.

"Some of us have returned to the same location to build our houses, not because we don't want to relocate to a safer place, but because we have no choice - land elsewhere is expensive," said Mr Miura, who paid 30 million yen (S$390,000) to rebuild his two-storey house where he lives with his wife and two children.

Most cannot afford to do the same thing and have to wait for government assistance. Earlier this year, the Japanese government had to extend the number of years residents could stay in temporary housing from three to four years after the disaster. Under Japan's disaster relief law, residents are allowed to stay in emergency housing for only two years.

The city hall of Ishinomaki is planning to provide 4,000 new houses but only 169 are expected to be completed by the end of next year, said city hall director Masatoshi Hoshi. He added that 3,200 homes will be completed by 2016.

Delays in building new homes have left close to 16,000 people still living in temporary housing complexes spread across Ishinomaki's city and coast. Some are embarrassed to be there, refusing to even stick their names on doors to indicate that the place is occupied.

"There's no privacy. The walls are too thin, so they want to get out of the temporary housing as soon as possible," said Mr Hoshi.

For most people still in temporary housing, it will be a long wait for their new homes. Construction company officials interviewed said official estimates for the completion of housing projects were overly ambitious.

At one district, work is under way to raise a brand new neighbourhood on what used to be rice fields. At 46.5ha, it is the biggest public housing development in Ishinomaki. The 1,460 new homes there will house 3,700 people.

But Mr Mitsuya Endoh, general manager of Endoh Kogyu General Construction, the firm helming the project, said its targeted completion date of 2016 is way off the mark.

"We are laying the foundation work now, and building is supposed to start in October, but my opinion is that it will be difficult," said Mr Endoh. He cited a lack of manpower and building materials as chief causes for concern. "We employ only about 20 people now, but when building actually starts we are going to need hundreds." He said the project will need at least another five years to finish.

People with the means have begun rebuilding their homes themselves, resulting in a boom for smaller construction firms. "Each house takes about six months to build and costs at least 10 million yen," said Mr Sadayoshi Suzuki, 52, who runs construction firm Bespoke Suzuki, which has built 10 houses so far and works with 70 other contractors.

"It's not cheap, but those who can afford it will choose to rebuild," he said. Retired tuna fisherman Mamoru Kimura, 81, got tired of waiting for a new home because living with his 77-year-old wife in a tiny two-room unit in one of Ishinomaki's temporary housing complexes proved too challenging.

He has difficulty eating and a home nurse visits him daily to administer nutrition through a feeding tube. Moving medical equipment through spaces with barely enough room for a grown man to sit cross-legged is a challenge.

When he learnt that it would be three years before his new home would be ready, he decided to rebuild his wrecked home with his son's help. The family is now looking forward to moving back to their old home by January.

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