December 8, 2015
It was the middle of the afternoon and the rush hour traffic in the small coastal town of Rikuzentakata had not yet begun and the streets were quiet. Some people were on their way to pick up their children from school, others were shopping or planning their evening meals.
Then the buildings began to shake, and within minutes the town fell victim to the worst earthquake in Japanese history.
Measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, the quake whipped up a furious tsunami and waves some 18 m high swept across the lawns and scenic rice fields, leaving a trail of destruction.
By nightfall, with only a few buildings left standing in the lower coastal areas, the town had virtually disappeared. Over the next few days and weeks, the facts began to emerge – almost 4 000 homes destroyed, more than 1 700 people dead and thousands made homeless and desperate.
They were not alone. Some 250 km to the south, the eyes of the world watched in horror as engineers fought to save the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The attempt failed and a total meltdown, the biggest since Chernobyl, was a reality.
Numerous communities along the coastline suffered that day. But it is Rikuzentakata, in Iwate Prefecture, that has become the symbol of hope and belief in the future thanks to a massive reconstruction program that is now beginning to get results.
The muffled thud of rock being blasted is barely audible, but the thin veil of dust that blows in the wind from the Pacific Ocean reveals the location – a hillside above what was once a town and is now a virtual wasteland.
Minutes later, the mechanical sounds of drill rigs and earth moving equipment start up again. Since disaster struck four and a half years ago, the thousands of displaced residents of Rikuzentakata have been living in prefabricated, temporary shelters, with little hope of ever being able to return home. Now, thanks to the reconstruction project, that dream is a very realpossibility.
Launched in December 2012 at a cost of USD 1.6 billion, the local authority aims to construct a completely new community on the site, including homes, schools, hospitals, a railway station and a new commercial center. In addition, higher and stronger sea defences will be constructed along the coast – all by 2019.