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Housing tops tsunami evacuees' worries

Old people fear for the future as they face leaving the region they have always called home

An emergency relief center in Sendai.  An emergency relief center in Sendai. "We old folks, though, are in no shape to go hunting for a place to stay," one says
  • William Grimm, Ishinomaki
  • Japan
  • May 2, 2011
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Evacuees from the earthquake and tsunami, many of them old people, are living with anxiety of not knowing where they will live and the more pressing and simple needs of finding hot water to bathe.

Most people who lost their homes to the March 11 disaster  in northern Japan remain in evacuation centers in schools, gymnasiums and town halls.

Kiyoko Inomata, 85, lost her family and home in Ishinomaki. She lives for the time being in a school gym with other evacuees, but officials have announced that the schools must be cleared out by the middle of May so that normal student life can resume.

"The kids have a hard time with us using their school, but they pitch in and help with the cleaning," said Inomata.

Temporary housing is being put up around town, but there may not be enough ready by the deadline and even if people get into the housing, they are expected to move out within two years.

"I doubt they’ll throw us out," said Inomata. "We old folks, though, are in no shape to go hunting for a place to stay. Where can I go? I want to stay in the area."

Inomata said she had heard of a small apartment that might suit her, but the rent alone would take almost her entire pension.

Among the services for evacuees provided by the Sendai Diocesan Support Center with on-the-ground assistance from Caritas Japan in Ishinomaki is a hot-water distribution at an evacuation center in the Kadowaki Middle School.

When the first group of Caritas volunteers arrived in the town, one of them heard from people living in classrooms and gyms that they had no access to hot water during the day. They wanted to be able to make tea, coffee and instant foods as well as rinse out towels and clothes in warm water.

So, the volunteers began a hot-water distribution. Each morning, afternoon and evening, volunteers stand under a tent outside the school, tending big pots of boiling water from which they ladle water into thermos bottles that people line up to have filled. During the three sessions, they give out more than 700 liters each day.

At one end of the counter volunteers also provide cups of coffee, tea or hot chocolate as well as candy. Children who do not realize that grown-ups were once children who did the same thing sneak candy when they think no one is watching.

Hiroshi Ono, one of two supervisors of the operation in Ishinomaki, said, "You have to be careful when talking to the kids. It’s natural when they act up to say, ‘I’ll tell your parents.’ But some of them have lost parents."

Ono worries that once Golden Week, a succession of national holidays that combined with weekends and a day or two of vacation time gives the whole nation a week off from work and school, is over the pool of student volunteers may dry up.

"Maybe we can get retirees to come as volunteers," he said. "The hot water service is something they can do."

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