Fukushima evacuees’ housing units crumbling

[Translated by The Japan Times] At the temporary housing complexes in Fukushima Prefecture that serve as homes for those displaced by the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing nuclear disaster, degradation of the buildings is becoming a serious issue. Most of the units are well over 2 years old, and some are suffering from damaged floors and walls that are falling apart. Requests for repairs now exceed 300 cases a month. As winter approaches, some also fear that gaps in the walls created by the now tilting structures could let cold wind and snow into their homes. To deal with the situation, the prefectural government said it will start checking all 17,000 units this year. “I can’t sleep well because the floor squeaks when I turn over in my futon,” said Toshiko Oshima, 68, rubbing her sleepy eyes. Originally from Namie, Oshima lives in one of the temporary housing units in Minamiyanome in the city of Fukushima. The complex was built in June 2011, three months after the disasters. And after more than two years and five months, the damage is obvious. What bothers Oshima the most is the floor, which squeaks with every step she takes and seems to be getting bigger day by day. Meanwhile, the ceiling above the door has turned black with mold. To prevent it from increasing, wiping the ceiling has become a daily task for Oshima. Jusei Saito, 69, an evacuee from the radiation-tainted town of Okuma who lives in a temporary housing complex in Ikkimachi Nagahara in Aizuwakamatsu, feels the entire house is tilting. Saito suspects this is happening because the foundation of the building is made of wood rather than concrete. Because of the tilt, a gap has formed in the window by the toilet, and between the door and the wall separating the kitchen from the living room areas. “It’s going to get really cold from now on, but I wonder if we’re OK,” he asked with a grim look on his face. Fukushima Prefecture has built temporary housing units in 25 municipalities, all fully financed by the central government. The disaster relief law stipulates that evacuees are entitled to use the units for two years, but the related ordinance was revised in June 2011 to give the prefecture the authority to extend that time limit each year if necessary. In April this year, the Fukushima Prefectural Government decided that the residents in temporary housing could continue using the units until the end of March 2015. There are about 29,500 residents in temporary housing. More than 90 percent of such units are over 2 years old. According to the Recycling Society Promotion Center, a nonprofit organization commissioned to mend the units, more than 300 repair requests are filed each month. More and more residents are asking to have the units’ exteriors fixed. In November of 2011, soon after the NPO was commissioned to handle the repairs, the group had only received four requests. But the tally hit 63 in September this year. Many of the repairs are to fix broken wooden steps leading to the doors of the units or decks outside the windows; both are vulnerable to rain. Residents claim they could get hurt by the deterioration. In some cases, people’s windows or doors no longer close properly because of the growing tilt in the structures. In wooden units, walls facing south receive more sunlight and tend to fall off. At a housing compound in the town of Shinchi in March, the roofs were blown away by strong wind. Many residents are thus worried about the units’ durability. Masatoshi Usami, 79, an evacuee from the radiation-contaminated town of Tomioka living in a temporary housing in Wakamiyamae of Koriyama, is eager to move to public housing set aside for disaster victims, but a concrete plan to do so hasn’t emerged yet. Usami became worried about the strength of his temporary home when a quake ranked 4 on the seven-level Japanese seismic intensity scale rattled much of the region on Oct. 26. “I don’t know when I can move out of this temporary housing. I really want the government to deal with the situation so that we can lead our lives calmly,” he said. During the housing checks scheduled to start by the end of the year, staff from the companies that built them will not only examine their exteriors but their foundations as well. Since wood was used in the foundations of most of the units, the builders will check for erosion and subsidence. The checks are supposed to be finished by the end of March, with all repairs and reinforcement work to be conducted immediately after being spotted. “We will investigate thoroughly to cast aside the worries of the residents,” said an official from Fukushima’s housing construction division. The prefecture plans to conduct the checks annually. Out of time: Toshiko Oshima points to mold on the ceiling of her temporary housing unit in the city of Fukushima on Oct. 31, along with its squeaky floor. FUKUSHIMA MINPO