After the Tsunami: They Left and They’re Not Coming Back

Abandoned 6No one lives in Odaka City. More than 13,000 people used to. But after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and subsequent meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011, everyone was forced to leave. After the earthquake, residents were given two hours to collect their most precious belongings and head for high ground before the inevitable arrival of the tsunami.

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Four years later, after extensive efforts to clean up contaminated debris and soil (five centimeters of topsoil had to be scraped from the ground to rid the dirt of as much radiation as possible), Odaka City is still uninhabitable. There is no electricity in the city and no running water–it wouldn’t be clean enough to use anyway. Former residents and others can visit, but must leave by 5:00 p.m. every day. Officials expect the town to be ready for people to live here once again by April, 2016, but only 20% of Odaka City’s residents say they plan to return.

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If it’s possible to see the absence of something, you see it here. More powerfully, you hear it: silence. Standing in the middle of what was once a busy residential street, you hear nothing. No kids playing in their yards, no weedwhackers, no car horns. No golfers teeing it up at the driving range in the center of town. Instead, the large open space has been converted into a holding ground for dozens of large bags of contaminated soil. (When you remove five centimeters of soil from everywhere, where do you put it? That’s one of the great challenges facing cleanup workers.)

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Absence, abandonment, silence. It’s palpable here. Strangely too, there’s also a sense of action. Because this is a place where, all of a sudden, in an instant, people abruptly left their lives in the middle of the day. Calendars hanging on the walls of abandoned houses are still turned to March, 2011.

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Nowhere is this sense of action/abandonment more apparent than at the town train station, where rows and rows of bicycles still sit in the racks where their owners left them four years ago. Residents of this town rode to the station, locked up their bikes, and headed off to work or school and never came back.

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It’s difficult to come to terms with what happened–and what is still happening–here. Even more difficult to describe it. You feel it. The 24-hour news networks packed up and left long ago. They’re off to chase missing planes and moralize about what protestors should and shouldn’t do. But for the people of this region, life will never move on. This is life now. The world just isn’t paying attention anymore.

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