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Year after tsunami, battles rage in Japan over how, where to rebuild

ISHINOMAKI, Japan -- Fujii Mie is still haunted by the “black wall’’ of water she saw in the rearview mirror as she raced to safety at a nearby supermaket.

Peering out the store’s window hours later, Mie helplessly watched her house float away, one of almost 54,000 Ishinomaki homes — 72.6 percent of all structures in this port city — destroyed in the Great East Japan Earthquake.

“My heart still breaks for my people,’’ said Mei, 52, who now lives in an evacuation shelter. “It’s a very sad feeling.’’

Japan will pause Sunday to mark the one-year anniversary of the disaster — a massive 9.0 earthquake that spawned a monster tsunami and triggered a nuclear meltdown.

All told, almost 20,000 people were killed, 124,000 were displaced and hundreds of thousands of buildings destroyed. The government estimated damage at more than $300 billion, making it the world’s costliest natural disaster.

“In some cases, towns just vanished, swallowed by the tsunami and swept away,’’ said Yoshio Ando, a counselor with the government’s new Reconstruction Agency. “It was tragic.”

A year later, thousands of evacuees remain in shelters, and coastal cities like Ishinomaki — founded in the fourth century — are still struggling to remove tons of debris and agree on innovative recovery plans.

The Reconstruction Agency and city governments in affected areas are calling for resettlements of thousands of people from low-lying communities to higher ground — in the shadows of surrounding mountains, in some cases — as part of controversial plans to rebuild “smarter.’’

“What we need is a different concept of how to rebuild those communities,’’ Ando said. “We have to rebuild tsunami-resistant communities with all the necessary services, from schools to welfare. We don’t have time to waste and we need to accelerate the speed of this reconstruction.’’

But Mei and many fellow evacuees said they feel like bystanders in discussions about their future. City officials, they add, have been slow to respond to their issues, which include compensation for their losses and a desire to rebuild close to their destroyed homes.

“This city has done nothing for us,’’ Mei said one afternoon inside a small trailer that serves as a community center. “I can’t trust them. This city looks down at us.”

In a downtown high-rise, city officials said they want to work with evacuees, but some aspects of the reconstruction — moving some residents farther inland, among them — are nonnegotiable.

“Right now, we’re planning two new towns away from the coast and we’re going to make those towns better,’’ said Yoshinori Sato, assistant manager of the reconstruction office, showing off large multi-colored maps with the city’s plans. “We plan to move people who live in this blue area [near the water] to the new towns.”

But Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told journalists last weekend that the rebuilding should take into consideration the concerns of local residents.

“When it comes to reconstruction in areas seriously hit by the tsunami, there is debate over whether they have to move to higher ground,’’ he said. “I think that local residents have to discuss and decide ... and time is needed for that.’’

The battle that pits evacuees against reconstruction agencies in the aftermath of the disaster is vastly different from the quiet lives that many lived until the afternoon of March 11, 2011. Mei was in her kitchen preparing for her weekly dinner with her mother when her home shook violently at 2:46 p.m. Fearing her home was about to collapse, she fled to mother’s house. She picked up her mother and returned home to retrieve blankets and other emergency supplies.

“I had no idea a tsunami was coming,’’ she said.

But within minutes of entering her home and 34 minutes after feeling the earthquake, she heard the rumbling of the Pacific Ocean and water began to flood her street. She grabbed what she could and drove to the roof of the supermarket. She and her mother would live out of her car for a week, among almost 200 people unable to leave the half-submerged building. When the water receded, 85 bodies lay in the aisles.

“This one year anniversary has come too fast,’’ said Mei, a self-employed fish processor. “It seems like just a dream, but it’s reality.”

As in Ishinomaki, where 3,280 people died and all of downtown was flooded, scenes of destruction were being repeated from one city to another along the northeastern coast. In Sendai, the regional airport resembled a port. Water submerged the runway then entered the terminal, climbing almost 11 feet.

Sendai Airport Executive Director Teruo Odaira and 1,700 passengers, airline crew and airport employees were trapped for three days.

“I really thought I was going to die because of this tsunami,’’ Odaira said. “We weren’t able to contact the outside. We were isolated.”

The Japan Self-Defense Force and the U.S. military came to their rescue. Dubbed Operation Tomodachi (“friend” in Japanese), the United States launched the biggest humanitarian relief effort in its history. The $80 million operation consisted of 20 ships, almost 150 aircraft and some 20,000 Marines and sailors.

The airport reopened a month after the earthquake. In a show of solidarity, Vice President Joe Biden later landed Air Force Two at the airport and pledged that the U.S. will stand by Japan “for as long as it takes.”

Last month, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo launched an exchange program to benefit hundreds of young people from disaster-affected regions.

“There was a tremendous outpouring of help from Americans,’’ said Kurt Tong , deputy chief of mission at the embassy. “That said, Japan is an extremely capable country.”

Japan mounted one of the largest rescue missions ever, using 11 aircraft, including F-15 fighters. The death toll would have been much higher, officials said, had breaks on bullet trains not deployed automatically within seconds of the earthquake — or efforts not made quickly to contain accidents at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station.

The earthquake knocked out power at the station and emergency diesel generators were inoperable because of the tsunami. Highly contaminated water leaked into the sea. More than 100,000 people fled the area.

Most of the country’s nuclear power plants remain shuttered and many businesses and government buildings have been forced to reduce electricity.

The Reconstruction Agency estimated that rebuilding would cost $284.5 billion over 10 years — $235 billion within the first five years alone.

Parliament recently voted to cut government salaries and other measures to help fund rebuilding. Other measures include tax incentives for businesses that open factories in earthquake zones. One of the first businesses to take advantage of the tax breaks was the Hotland Corp., which operates a chain of restaurants in Asia. The company plans to move its headquarters to Ishinomaki.

“We wanted to provide employment, which is so important since so many people lost their jobs,’’ said Yutaka Kijima, who manages Hotland’s operations in Ishinomaki. “We want to help people here regain their smile.’’

A survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper showed that 20 percent of about 27,000 businesses in affected areas have not resumed operations.

Rebuilding costs will be expensive because residents of Ishinomaki and other coastal areas will have to create new ways of life, ones that don’t involve a dependence on the water, as they have for 17 centuries.

“We have to create new industries based on a new way of thinking,” said Ando of the Reconstruction Agency. “If we don’t do this, we won’t be able to revive those areas’ economy by creating jobs. And if we don’t do that, as a worst case, those areas might become ghost towns.”

In Sendai, Ishinomaki and other communities, city leaders proudly pull out maps and drawings showing brand new communities. Homes are powered by solar energy and come equipped with tsunami warnings. Roads will be elevated to allow quick escape if a warning sounds. Hills and buildings will be constructed for use as evacuation sites. Leaders want to create smart energy communities that do not rely on any one type of energy.

The area’s survival depends on finding new ways live, said Atsushi Hamano, assistant chief of disaster prevention in Ishiomaki. He speaks from a hill overlooking once vibrant communities along the water that are now barren.

“We used to have 40 ports along there,’’ Hamano said, pointing to where the Kitakami River meets the land. “They are all gone. I was born and raised here. With the tsunami, all the memories of my childhood are lost.”