Japan: Nuclear evacuees tell their stories

Momoko Onodera, whose husband died in the tsunami, prays at an evacuation center on March 18, 2011 in Kesennuma, Japan.</p>

Momoko Onodera, whose husband died in the tsunami, prays at an evacuation center on March 18, 2011 in Kesennuma, Japan.

OSAKA, Japan — As the world watches the drama unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, tens of thousands of people evacuated from near the facility have yet to be allowed back home. Still more have been ordered to stay inside, while others are living in evacuation centers, having seen their homes destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami.

Authorities in Japan reported slight progress over the weekend in cooling the plant, 150 miles north of Tokyo, while evidence emerged that radioactive substances had found their way into water supplies and the food supply — though not at levels that pose a threat to human health.

The country's "nuclear evacuees" face a long and anxious wait before they can set about rebuilding their shattered lives.

Takahiro Kori, 37, a worker in a car parts factory, saw the house he shared with his parents and younger brother in Minami Soma, Fukushima prefecture, vanish beneath the waves. Since his home was located just 20 or so kilometers from the plant, he has been unable to return to survey the damage.

Paul Vonnahme, 55, a university teacher from St Louis, Miss., lives within the 80-kilometer exclusion zone the U.S. government announced last week.

Here, they tell GlobalPost about their week in the shadow of the worst nuclear power crisis in Japan's history.


Takahiro Kori

I had worked the night shift the day before the earthquake and was asleep when it struck the following afternoon. The first I knew about it was when an alarm sounded on my cell phone to warn that a strong one was on its way in seconds.

I could tell straight away it was much stronger than usual. I ran out of the house and saw that the shaking had damaged the roof of our house, which is less than 30 kilometers from the nuclear power plant.

I live with my parents and my younger brother, but they were all out at work. I had my mobile phone in my pocket but I didn't try and call them immediately. All I could think about was how much the ground was shaking.

I thought there was a good chance that a tsunami would come. Our house is only about 100 meters from the sea, so I got into my car and drove to higher ground. A small group of us stood and stared at the sea for what seemed like ages, but there was no sign of a tsunami.

I decided to drive back to the house and pick up a few belongings, which I'd packed into a bag a few days earlier after another earthquake. I knew then that something was up, that we might be hit by a stronger one.

On the way, the local authorities announced over a loud speaker that a tsunami would arrive in 20 minutes. While I was inside the house my parents turned up. We agreed that we hadn't got much time and jumped into my car and headed back up the hill.

On the way, I looked into my rear-view mirror and saw the tsunami washing over the roofs of houses in my neighborhood. I knew then that our home was gone. It was like watching a disaster movie. I've never seen anything like it.

The nuclear power plant had always been in the back of my mind, but we were told it was built to withstand strong earthquakes and tsunami. I still wanted to believe that, even as the TV news was saying that there appeared to be a problem with a reactor. Now all I can do is continue to believe that the Tepco workers will put it right. If I don't have faith in them, what else is there?

We spent a night at my younger sister's house, but she too had to leave her home because the evacuation zone was widened to include her neighborhood. For the past few days we have all been living at a sports hall with about 1,000 other people.

I get two to three hours' sleep a night now, but for a couple of nights after the disaster I couldn't sleep a wink. I was in a state of shock. Everyone here is glued to the television, watching for updates on the operation to cool the reactors. There isn't much else to do. We have no fuel so no one is driving — and no one wants to go out — but local volunteers are doing a great job of cooking proper meals.

I'm still under a lot of stress. Some of my colleagues died in the tsunami, and my workplace is only 10 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant so the rest of us don't know when we'll be able to return to work.

Everyone in the evacuation center is obsessed with the power plant situation. Some of us still hold out hope, but there are others who think Tepco and the government have lost control. I'd always had my doubts about safety, but since last Friday I am definitely anti-nuclear power. I think I speak for a lot of people here when I say that.

Why didn't the authorities have a better plan in place for this kind of disaster? Why haven't they been thinking one step ahead since it happened? It's clear that they hadn't prepared for the Big One. They have to go back to the drawing board if they are going to convince us, and the rest of the world, that Japan's nuclear power plants are safe.

I can't even begin to think of the future until this is all over. Everyone wants to go home, but they know they're not going to find anything when they get there. We will need help turning this area into a place in which people can live normal lives again. It's going to take years.

My home has gone — the neighborhood in which I was born and grew up has been destroyed. I have no idea when I'll be able to return. All I can say for certain is that I never want to live near the sea again.

 

Paul Vonnahme

I was about to walk into a building for a meeting when the earthquake struck. I was in the doorway so turned around immediately and stayed outside. I could see a pedestrian bridge swaying violently. It got stronger, and stronger again. I was having trouble staying on my feet. I thought then that a very big quake must have hit Tokyo.

I managed to email my daughter on my cell phone, which I also used to watch TV coverage of the tsunami coming in. By the time I got home my wife and children had already started clearing up the broken crockery and other items that had fallen to the floor. By midnight, our water supply had been cut.

I was at the school I teach at when I heard that one of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi had exploded. I have always been aware of the nuclear power plant, but I've never seen it except on TV.

Radiation is still my main concern. It's frightening — there's no question of that. What happened at the plant was a game changer. I am stuck here for the time being. You can't just up and leave, not with a wife and three children [I have twin boys as well]. In any case, I don't have enough gas in the car to get us very far.

I'd like to have iodine tablets and I'd like to go outside more. Certain foods are very hard to come by and there's no gasoline. The tap water is back on, but initially we boiled water in pans for drinking. I had filled up the bath with tap water and used stream water to flush the toilet.

I never thought something as shocking as this would happen. It's like a bad horror movie. We've also had hundreds of aftershocks. It's like you're on a boat. One day I simply couldn't get out of bed, so I positioned my head so it was beneath my steel desk just in case another big quake came. It was my way of dealing with the stress.

It's still hard to sleep, and I'm fearful for the future. There's the possibility of more earthquakes, and the nuclear issue. There's so much happening at once. Yes, I have a fear of dying and I fear what radiation might do to my children.

It's feasible that we might move away from the area, but I don't have the clarity of thought to decide just yet. This has been my home for 20 years.

If something does happen I have a bag ready containing all our passports. This isn't finished yet. Things could change again.

Initially everyone in this neighborhood was watching TV and being friendly, offering advice on where to get water. But a few days ago the whole mood changed. It was like people no longer wanted to make eye contact. They were worried, and for good reason. We are not out of the woods yet.

It's definitely quieter here now. People haven't left altogether; they're just not leaving their homes. You can see their cars still outside their houses. The fear of what will happen with the reactors is still there.

But I don't feel like it's too dangerous at the moment. I've been checking myself for symptoms of radiation sickness, and while I've obviously been exposed to higher-than-usual levels, I'm not sick. I'll have a proper check up. I'm going to have my children do the same and will be keeping a very close watch on them in the future.

It's going to take the people around here 10 years to recover what they've lost. They'll clean up quickly enough, but the repercussions will last for a very long time. I liked this place the way it was. That's what makes it so sad. That's how I would sum it up — people feel more sad than fearful. It's going to take a lot of healing for life to return to normal.

See GlobalPost's complete coverage of the tsunami and earthquake in Japan.