Foul Odors, Rising Water, and a Lethal Mega-Float

The Problem of Kesennuma (photo by Yoshinori Mizuno, Asahi Shinbun)

The rainy season has begun in Japan, with a vengeance. Kicked off by a typhoon from the Philippines that was downgraded to a nasty rainstorm, the temperature has plummeted, the skies have darkened, and Tohoku is a soggy mess of dead fish,  flooded roads, clogged drainpipes, and potential landslides.

Let’s start with the dead fish, which really have nothing to do with the rainy season, but just add to the misery of the situation. Yesterday’s Asahi Shinbun featured the coastal city of Kesennuma  (Miyagi prefecture, just above Fukushima) , where 20,000 tons of fish and fish by-products have been liberated from processing plants by the tsunami, and are now rotting in heaps about the city. According to the Asahi article, farmers can only work in their rice fields for thirty minute stretches due to the “unbearable stench”, and the “official in charge of dealing with foul odors” has his hands full.  You want that job?  How do you feel about maggots and flies? Are you prepared to investigate the refrigerators and freezers that lie about (in the most unexpected places) and remove what’s inside?  There were ninety fish processing facilities in the city; the factories were devastated, and their contents now lie scattered about an area so wide that removal and processing still continue after two full months. The fish, once collected, are piled up along the piers, loaded onto boats, and tossed back into the sea from whence they came. At least in Kesennuma.

Moving father south to Ishinomaki, rotting garbage of all varieties is causing headaches, sore throats, and burning eyes, according to local surveys. Workers in Ishinomaki, whose shores sunk significantly as a result of the tsunami,  are dependent on the tides. Many roads (including roads that children take on their daily school commute) are now flooded during high tide, and garbage collection can only be done when streets are accessible. Though workers are sloshing about doing their best, they have not been able to keep ahead of the piles of garbage accumulating daily as the clean-up of the city progresses. In addition to this, since the rain began three days ago, volunteers and Self Defense Forces have been frantically building temporary levees with sandbags, hoping to contain even more flooding; they have been only been partially successful. Ishinomaki seems to be in a particularly desperate situation, despite the constant stream of volunteers from across the nation who take a week or so (some have stayed since the onset ) to shovel through mud, pry apart broken buildings, prop up fallen grave markers, and assist private home-owners in repair and clean-up work. Basically, there is not enough space: no space to house volunteers; no space to dump garbage; no dry, safe, flat space to begin constructing pre-fab houses; no space to house those who have been left homeless. In short, the landscape has been effectively gobbled up by seawater and rubble.

Moving a bit farther south to the city of Sendai,  it’s raining there too– in record amounts. Last night’s NHK news showed workers wading through the streets, and attempting to unclog drainage ditches choked with debris (my notes say “disgusting glop”, but I cannot remember if that was the direct translation, or my own paraphrase. Either way, that’s what it looked like).  Evacuation advisories are being issued in vulnerable areas, and what looked (on the news) like netting and tarp was being thrown over hillsides to ensure against landslides.  My friend Sumiko, whose husband was in Sendai this week reporting on the clean-up progress for Newsweek Japan, says that the Self Defense Forces in the city are exhausted. The first death from overwork was reported last week, and none of the men have been home with their families since the disaster.

Farther south, we come to Fukushima, where it’s raining as well….right into nuclear reactors 1, 3, and 4, whose roofs were blown off by hydrogen explosions.  TEPCO reported a “dramatic increase” in the water level of the No. 1 reactor over the weekend.  Well, since

Reactor No. 1...Topless! (image released by TEPCO)

workers have been assiduously pumping water into the reactors for two months now in a frantic attempt to cool them down, one might think that the rainwater would speed things along, right?  Perhaps this may be so, but the issue of potential (fairly certain) leaks is what has folks worried. When the contaminated water in the basement of the reactors is lower than ground level, a one-way leak from ground water into the tanks may occur; what is more worrisome is if the level of the contaminated water rises above the level of ground water, leaking out into the surrounding soil and flowing into the ocean.  Many experts are certain that this is already happening. In any case, as Asahi Shinbun reporter Sugimoto Takashi writes, “TEPCO has not yet decided how to deal with the issue. However, it has secured hoses to transfer contaminated water from the basements of the No. 2 and No. 3 turbine buildings. A large, floating container, dubbed a ‘mega-float’, is in place offshore to hold the contaminated water.”  So now there are ‘mega-blocks’ of radioactive slag (read “poop”),  ‘mega-boxes’ of radioactive playground sand, and a ‘mega-float’ to hold radioactive water…..and a growing “dead zone” outside the plant’s perimeter that is spreading fast. That brings us to the people who once lived in that zone, and what the outlook for their future might be.

For the present, they are scattered far and wide across Japan. I recently learned that there are a number of Fukushima families living in my own city of Hadano. Though it boasts a huge population, Hadano is officially considered “the country”, and is known for its pure mountain water and popular hiking courses.  A new camping facility has just been finished several years ago, complete with lovely cabins furnished with spacious kitchens and tatami sleeping rooms. Really, I hardly consider that camping at all, but since the cabins are on a mountain in the woods, that fits the Japanese definition, I guess. Anyway, the cabins are now home to the Fukushima families, free of charge, for a short-term stay (hopefully until July, so children can finish up their first semester of school ).  There are Fukushima children in every grade in Hadano, from elementary through Jr. High, and I hear that they’re fitting in just fine.

To my surprise, today’s Asahi Shinbun says there are also Fukushima families in the heart of Tokyo, staying en masse at the Grand Prince Hotel in Akasaka! “Luxury Hotel Home to Refugees” read the headline, with a photo of a charming toddler seated near the window overlooking the Tokyo skyline, surrounded by bags and bags of belongings. Eight hundred refugees from the towns of Iwaki, Minami-Soma, and Futaba are now living in the hotel, which was scheduled to close at the end of March, but decided to remain open with the aid of the Tokyo metropolitan government as a refuge for evacuees. The government is currently paying for meals and utilities, and keeping the hotel open until the end of June.  Although children won’t be able to finish up the school semester (summer vacation begins in mid-July), the hotel stay provides a safe haven and a chance for parents to catch their breath before considering their next move. Most evacuees have mixed feelings about being country families in the heart of fashionable Tokyo; I understand this completely, always fretting that I don’t have the right clothes to wear on the rare occasions when I take the train into the city. Older evacuees feel the irony and frustration of the situation. Hideo Kurosawa, a sixty-eight year old town official from Tomioka, looks out at the lights of Tokyo each night, knowing that, “The neon lights of the metropolis were made possible by the electricity from the nuclear plant.”

The families in Hadano and Akasaka are the lucky ones, at least as far as creature comforts. But they are living a long distance from their former communities, and far from friends and family. Those who remained closer to home face harsher living conditions, but at least retain the comfort of community ties. Though life in a school gymnasium for weeks on end  requires stamina and patience, old folks in particular find reassurance in being able to visit with neighbors, exchange news, and have company at mealtimes.  All of the evacuees–whether far or near–are living with uncertainty, and weighing their options.  As yet, those options are unclear, as the jury is still out on whether they will in fact be able to return home, and if so, how soon that might be.  Bloomberg News reported today that specialists are estimating that restoration of the contaminated land to “livability” could be achieved within three years, but that the government must move fast to begin the process if it hopes to be successful. This involves “cleaning” the soil, or even replacing it. And of course, everything depends on the successful control and shut-down of the power plant itself, which is the more immediate crisis.

Meanwhile, tsunami debris is on its way to Hawaii. US researchers predict some bizarre pieces of Japan will wash ashore on the North American west coast within three years, hitting Hawaii twice.  The International Pacific Research Center of the University of Hawaii at Manoa reports that a  “..massive and concentrated arrival of debris,” including bits of buildings, cars, ships, and other tsunami trash will wreck havoc with the environment and harm the wildlife.  There could be potential lawsuits, even, that Japan should prepare for!

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister faces a vote of no-confidence on Thursday. Some say he’ll be ousted, and some say he’ll weather the crisis. Still others (my husband included) say his facial color is terrible, and he must be suffering from extremely poor health. Personally, I don’t think any Japanese politicians look either healthy or pleasing to the eye, but that’s another story. I do hope we do not change Prime Ministers in mid-stream, and I do hope that Kan does not have a bleeding ulcer, though it would not be surprising.

That’s the news for this week; I wish it were not quite so dark, but perhaps it’s the rainy season that’s coloring my perspective as well. There have been positive developments and bright patches, so I will attempt to focus on the good as well as the bad in my next post. I am off to Las Vegas next week for a wedding, so it may be some time before I get back on track….but I’ll be back for sure, as long as the story continues to unfold. Good night.


5 thoughts on “Foul Odors, Rising Water, and a Lethal Mega-Float

  1. Meanwhile, tsunami debris is on its way to Hawaii. US researchers predict some bizarre pieces of Japan will wash ashore on the North American west coast within three years, hitting Hawaii twice.

    I do not understand this sentence, what do you mean, ‘hitting Hawaii twice’?

    • Here’s the poop, Joseph: the debris is scheduled to first arrive in Hawaii in 2012, with some of it continuing on to California, , British Columbia, and Alaska. Winds and currents will then carry it back west, mix it up and break it down in the “Pacific gyre” , and then return it to Hawaii around 2016. !

  2. Dear Ruthie, this is just so awful, and yet it’s right that you share these realities. Vegas will take you to another world. Enjoy it! Anne

  3. The disaster in Japan has been heartbreaking. Very impressed at the way the Japanese people have handled it. Hopefully, the government will step up to do their share in alleviating the affected people’s misery and situation.

    Enjoy your trip to Vegas.

    • Thank you for reading, simplesplendidthings! I so enjoyed your sakura photos; I went back to that post several times, in fact. The government is a huge mess right now, which is adding to the misery. Most of the positive things that are happening are being instigated by local communities banding together, NPOs working around the clock, and individuals who have emerged as leaders. And of course the energy conservation efforts nation-wide. My trip to Vegas will be short but sweet. : )

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